Matt pointed out to me yesterday that the death of Roger Scruton proves one of his major pastoral pet peeves. Many people (some of whom should know better) who lose someone they love, when they come bereft to face the horror of how to honor and grieve their dead, nevertheless recoil from the idea of a funeral. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘we don’t want to mourn a loss, we want to celebrate a life.’ That’s always the phrase—‘celebrate a life.’ This often includes pseudo pagan feelings about how the dew on the eagle’s wing might be the dead person, who isn’t really gone. Fortunately, Good Shepherd people, in the face of death, come clamoring for the robust burial and commendation liturgies in our fantastic new prayer book.
The death of Roger Scruton—and that very important musical person who also died this week, about whom I still know very little, but am faithfully listening to all his music—proves the insufficiency of the ‘Celebrate a Life’ trope. It isn’t a celebration, even if you command everyone to rejoice. Someone of inestimable value has been lost from the human family, someone who made life richer, better, more thoughtful, more beautiful. Mourning is the best and most sane response.
All the more so because not everyone who dies deserved to be mourned. That Soleimani character, for instance, deserves no grief. Nor when I die, will the whole world stare at twitter for fifteen minutes in stunned disbelief. Hopefully, my children will be sad, because—and here is the kicker—I won’t be here anymore contributing anything to their lives or the human experiment. I won’t be alive in their hearts, I won’t be the dew on the bird’s wing, I won’t be looking down at them from heaven. They will be entirely cut off from me and my memory will gradually and tragically fade until I am utterly forgotten.So that’s awful, and I expect them to mourn—lament—even in the midst of whatever gratitude they might feel about the way I lived my life. In their grief they will need the Christian proclamation of the gospel, that God the Father sent the Son to defeat my greatest enemy, sin and death, that though we are separated now, it will not always be so, that I am not gone forever, but alive, kept in heaven until Jesus should return in glory and we are all restored to each other.
Of course, it is fine to celebrate the good things—the precious gifts that one person can bestow in a whisper of a life, gifts like love, affection, useful ideas, beautiful objects, painful self-sacrifice, unusual quirks and delightful insight into that far better country towards which we all strain. And a good, hefty, carb-laden funereal lunch after the tragic yet hopeful lines of the concluding processional anthem, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; Even so, says the Spirit, for the rest from their labors,” feels both like a relief and a celebration.
Nevertheless, the person is gone, and all that he or she was is gone, and until you go to him or her, you will be bereft. What a great and glorious gift, then, does the Christian have to offer others in their grief. Look! Death is not the final answer. Separation is not forever. Loss is not the ultimate word. The Lord Jesus has destroyed our greatest foe by the power of his indestructible goodness.