Monday, March 20, 2017

Death, Funerals, and Grieving Words

I attended a funeral this past weekend. The deceased, Jeremy Sprague, was a former classmate and friend. When Liz and I moved to Phoenix, he arrived some weeks later and spent a month on our floor. For the following two years we shared life: meals, house church meetings, hikes, concerts, and weekly consumption of Arrested Development (binge watching was not yet a thing).

Then Liz and I moved to Denver. Our contact with Jeremy was minimal. We saw each other once in the past ten years; we received one or two Christmas compilation CDs. Otherwise, radio silence. News of his death came as a shock.

We drove to his hometown, Lima, Ohio, for his memorial service. On the way, Liz and I shared memories. We shook our heads at the idea of a classmate and peer dying. At thirty-seven, we are too young to die, but death is no respecter of ages. It takes infants and elderly, sinners and saints, healthy and infirmed.

Liz and I mingled momentarily in the visiting room before sliding into the chapel to secure a seat. As we waited for the crowd, casket, and family to claim their spots, I took note of the odd layout and decor of the room. Fluorescent lights cast a harsh glow over floral couches and folding chairs. Soft, piano music played from a PA system. Nothing in this funeral home reflected the style and flair of the deceased.

But the dead are given little voice in these matter. We must speak for them. Ironically, our speaking for the dead also has an odd shape to it. In our state of shock, grief, or disbelief, we try and make sense of death with selective memories and sentimental tropes.

Funeral services are rife with selective memories. Time and again I have wondered if the person remembered was the one that I knew. The deceased performed heroics. The deceased epitomized humor or hospitality or kindness or grace. The deceased knew no failings, but glowed with virtue and grace. We tell these stories to ease the sting of death.

In the preface to his book, Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card admits his discomfort at the way every person is cast as a saint in her eulogy. Selective memories, he argues, do not grant true honor to the dead or freedom to those grieving, but leave people shackled to a lie. His novel makes a compelling case for honesty. (If my children speak at my funeral, I hope they laugh at my crazy eyebrows and annoying habit of teaching lessons.)

Our sentimental tropes go beyond trying to ease the sting of death; they deny death altogether. People often say, "He's still alive; I carry him in my heart." (So common is this phrase, one can purchase it at the funeral home souvenir shop.) Or they assert, "She'll always be present with us, even though she's gone." Such comments betray our unwillingness to accept death.
I can understand: death is a bully and thief.

But we must be careful not to let sentimentalism delude us. We do not carry people in our hearts. Disembodied souls do not remain present with us. These cliches are likely the fruit of our culture's fledgling, Christian imagination. We no longer say, "Absent from the body, but present with with Lord." Our modern refrain is: "Absent from the body, but present with us." And we envision the dead eternally resting in our indulgent hearts. I know my own heart: to dwell there forever would be a punishment as cruel as hell.

Death hurts. It stings. It rattles us and robs us of people we love. Selective memories and sentimental tropes will not win them back. God grants us full right to grieve for as long as we need to, but he wants us to leave the dead with him.

So may Jeremy rest in peace.

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