Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Death and Disneyland

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Abraham pleurant Sarah
Abraham Mourning Sarah
62.5 x 49.5 cm
Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice

Father Tim ("Death does count and is not a negligible accident") and Father Ray ("Assumptions About Death") have both written very movingly and powerfully about Death and the proper Catholic approach towards Death

Father Tim writes:

"Death is not "nothing", it is a big thing and can be devastating. Something has happened and it can seem that everything has changed. Our old life is not untouched, it has been blown apart. Yes, we should keep our happy memories and cherish them but we do not need to "force" solemnity and sorrow - they come quite naturally. Life is not the same any more and there is not an unbroken continuity - your mother, husband, brother, child is dead and it hurts. It is most definitely not a negligible accident, and grief and mourning do not mean that our loved ones are out of mind ...

So many people today have an extra "guilt trip" shoved on their shoulders because they are told to think that it is somehow not right to mourn. The popular transformation of the funeral into "A celebration of the life of ..." distracts people from the opportunity to do the one thing that really helps those who have died: to pray for them. "

As Father Ray writes a propos Father Tim`s article and The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

"Fr Tim is speaking about is our confusion in the Church today at funerals, over eschatology, the “Last Things”. The dreadful thing is, I suspect, such confusion merely masks a further confusion(s) which is: what our Life is about and most importantly: what is Christ about. Does he have a purpose? Was the Atonement necessary or can we merely live without him?

Has Christ now become merely about quality of Life, offering vaguery that in some sense Life is nicer with Jesus. If that is so why bother? "

Of course the problem is not a new one. I would suspect that most people fly from considering Death and in particular their own Deaths. Modern funeral "etiquette" simply reflects the growing and widespread belief that Death requires to be sanitised, deodorised and hidden. It is not good business to upset the attenders of funerals. They are potential customers and clients.

It was not always so in Britain

In the 1940s, Evelyn Waugh went to Southern California and was bewitched, entranced and bemused by The Forest Law Cemetery in Los Angeles. As well as by Nancy Mitford`s best selling book on American Funeral Rites and Customs. The result was of course his hilarious satire The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy

He also wrote about his impressions of Forest Lawn for The Tablet (yes, it was once a very good magazine) in an article entitled "Half in Love with Easeful Death" which was published on 18th October 1947. Here is an extract:

"Embalming is so widely practised in California that many believe it to be a legal obligation.

At Forest Lawn the bodies lie in state, sometimes on sofas, sometimes in open coffins, in apartments furnished like those of a luxurious hotel, and named ‘Slumber Rooms.’ Here the bereaved see them for the last time, fresh from the final beauty parlour, looking rather smaller than in life and much more dandified. There is a hint of the bassinette about these coffins, with their linings of quilted and padded satin and their frilled silk pillows.

There is more than a hint, indeed, throughout Forest Lawn that death is a form of infancy, a Wordsworthian return to innocence. ‘I am the Spirit of Forest Lawn,’ wrote K. C. Beaton, in less than Wordsworthian phrase : ‘I speak in the language of the Duck Baby,* happy childhood at play.’

We are very far here from the traditional conception of an adult soul naked at the judgment seat and a body turning to corruption.

There is usually a marble skeleton lurking somewhere among the marble draperies and quartered escutcheons of the tombs of the high renaissance; often you find, gruesomely portrayed, the corpse half decayed with marble worms writhing in the marble adipocere. These macabre achievements were done with a simple moral purpose - to remind a highly civilized people that beauty was skin deep and pomp was mortal. In those realistic times Hell waited for the wicked and a long purgation for all but the saints, but Heaven, if at last attained, was a place of perfect knowledge.

In Forest Lawn, as the builder claims, these old values are reversed. The body does not decay; it lives on, more chic in death than ever before, in its indestructible class A steel and concrete shelf ; the soul goes straight from the Slumber Room to Paradise, where it enjoys an endless infancy - one of a great Caucasian nursery-party where Knights of Pythias toddle on chubby unsteady legs beside a Borglum whose baby-fingers could never direct a pneumatic drill and a Carrie Jacobs-Bond whose artless ditties are for the Duck Baby alone.

That, I think, is the message. To those of us too old-fashioned to listen respectfully, there is the hope that we may find ourselves, one day beyond time, standing at the balustrade of Heaven among the unrecognisably grown-up denizens of Forest Lawn, and, leaning there beside them, amicably gaze down on Southern California, and share with them the huge joke of what the Professors of Anthropology will make of it all."

In the 1940s everyone laughed with Waugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the spectacle. Then of course it was a time of shared Christian values. There had just been a World War. Death had been a recent ever present reality. The truth about Death could not be ignored or swept under the carpet. The preciousness of and the sanctity of life were shared ideals. It was a natural corollary of the realism about Death. Everyone could and did appreciate the comic absurdity which Waugh discerned and satirised. People got the joke and more .

Time progressed, memories dimmed and values changed, The "Forest Lawn" concept grew more popular. The franchise spread. It has become global.

The aim is to please the customer quickly cheaply and efficiently. Mourning a loved one is painful and numbing. It is not an experience which one would readily embrace. The death of every man does (or should) diminish us all. But the loss of a very close loved one can leave the closest bereaved feeling as if a void has opened up inside them. The pain of mourning is the natural and inevitable consequence of living a life of Love

Comforting the bereaved is not easy. It requires time and commitment. Therefore the commercial and modern response to comfort of the bereaved is the quick palliative: denial of the reality and its replacement by what Waugh called "a form of infancy": the Disneyfication of Death. It is the flight from Truth, the denial of the human condition and the debasement of the memory of the deceased