Everything About Death is Disappearing — Except Death
November’s focus on death and the next world seems less prominent today. Perhaps we should not be surprised.
November is a month associated in Catholic tradition with prayer for the faithful departed. It is also a month during which the Church’s readings at Mass—in both the Sunday and weekday cycles—take on a decided eschatological cast: death, judgment and being prepared for it, the end of the world.
November’s associations with death have become somewhat diluted. What once was a thirty day period of prayer for the dead has now, in most parishes, become a novena of Masses during the first nine days of the month. Before the reform of the Lectionary, the last Sunday of the Church year was the equivalent of a Sunday of Ordinary Time (24th Sunday after Pentecost), followed by the First Sunday of Advent. Both Sundays—the last of the old church year and the first of the new one—focused on the end of the world. That contiguity has now been lost with the insertion of the Feast of Christ the King as the last Sunday of the Church year (migrated from its former place at the end of October).
I’m not arguing the merits or demerits of the reform of the liturgical calendar, but I am observing that November’s focus on death and the next world seems less prominent today. Perhaps we should not be surprised: if we look at the larger world, everything about death is disappearing … except death.
It’s a paradox (but quite understandable and even sinister) that the more we have embraced a culture of death, the less we want to talk about death itself.
Even the term “culture of death”—a notion prominently introduced into our discourse by St. John Paul II—seems to have gone into eclipse. Votaries of abortion are redoubling their efforts to ensure that Roe be protected and abortion endorsed even through birth; what ought to be uncontroversial legislation about the need to protect a newborn child’s life, irrespective of health or condition of dependency, fuels opposition; more and more countries are calling suicide a “right” and even trampling on medical personnel’s consciences to make them complicit in the death industry. But do we talk about the encroachment of the “culture of death?”
Consider how else death masks itself. I have long been a critic of the growing acceptance of cremation which, according to reputable surveys, now exceeds traditional burial. I recognize that, once upon a time, people who chose cremation were making a materialist claim, denying the soul and the resurrection of the dead, and that is why the Church forbade cremation. When it seemed that cremation as an expression of grinding some materialist axe was gone, the Church rescinded in 1963 its outright ban on cremation, though expressing a preference for burial (as Our Lord had lain in the tomb).
Cremation today is often chosen out of mixed motives. One dominant factor is economic: cremation is markedly cheaper than burial. Another is ecological: professed concern for the environment drives people towards cremation or even more radical destruction of the human body (e.g., methods that turn the body into an effluent or accelerate its decomposition so that the remains can be “returned to the soil” to “foster new life.”
What all this has in common is the disappearance of the body.
The disappearance of the body in turn drives two problematic tendencies, one philosophical, one theological. Philosophically, this active effort to destroy the body (as opposed to its gradual and natural decomposition through traditional burial) reinforces a gnostic or at least a dualist concept of the human person. The “person” becomes consciousness, the “I” which has now departed (“gone to a better place?”), while the body is no longer treated as personal but sub-personal, an overgrown carbon footprint whose deleterious environmental impact should be erased. That non-personal body can, therefore, be blended with garden topsoil, because there is nothing “personal” about it. It’s all part of the “circle of life” (our thinking is now Disneyesque). Theologically, this body is no longer treated as a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” because temples are not incinerated. Temples matter. But perhaps it also explains the apparent lack of reticent on the part of many American bishops to sell off our “surplus” parishes to turn them into EMT centers, gyms, or mosques. If it’s only “an asset” (just like the body was “only” the vessel of our “I”) so we should minimize loss and maximize gains.
But bodies have disappeared in other ways, too. Once upon a time, most people had the experience of death of a loved one. Today, death typically occurs in a clinical setting in the presence of medical personnel, not family. How many parents think they are doing their kids a favor not exposing them to the “trauma” of a funeral, not taking a child to a wake? We let our kids play video games in which they slaughter more people than the Amalekites, but we pretend they’ll be psychologically scarred for life seeing Grandma in a coffin. Seeing the dead has been shielded from our eyes.
Of course, one of the most egregious examples of the disappearing body has been the disposal of unborn children after abortion. The recent exposure of Indiana abortionist Ulrich Klopfer’s collection of 2,000+ fetuses, and similar “trophies” held by the abortionist killer Kermit Gosnell have raised the question: if we have had 60,000,000+ abortions in the United States since Roe, where are the bodies?
Well, some have gone to further enrich abortionists, who have treated fetal remains as something akin to a junkyard where a profit can still be made on parts (spleen, heart, kidneys, “calvaria”) or for experiments. But most have simply been ground up as medical waste or thrown into the garbage. Indiana’s effort to require a “humane” disposal of fetal remains (burial or cremation) has been tied up in the federal courts for years, as Planned Parenthood fights tooth and nail against any attempt to dignify the disposal of unborn bodies, lest the U-238 question—“when does life begin?”—rear its unwelcome head. So those bodies have to disappear, too.
Cremation has not only made the body disappear, but it’s made other aspects of funerary practice go away, too. When you had a burial, you generally had a wake. It was an opportunity for family and friends to gather, once upon a time in the deceased’s home, later in a funeral parlor, to pray for and remember the dead.
But with cremation, there’s no body, and it’s hard to imagine “Uncle Joe” as this little metal box. And another way to reduce funeral costs is to eliminate the wake (or bring Uncle Joe’s ashes to the memorial service an hour before it begins). So we have lost the idea of a wake, and the notion we ought to console the bereaved has also disappeared. Instead of going to a wake, we post something on a virtual wake page.
Likewise, funerals have disappeared, at least as we know them. A dead body compels burial within a certain time period after death. Freeze-dried relatives in ash form can be kept around until we find a mutually convenient time for the funeral. So, whereas funerals once interrupted life, now we schedule them at life’s convenience. Funerals as an experience that our lives will be interrupted have disappeared.
So, too, have cemeteries. We begrudge the use of “mother earth” to receive the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” to lie within consecrated ground as our Lord once did. Instead, we somehow think that the human bodily carbon footprint desecrates that ground, and so cemeteries are considered an unjustified extravagance. Let’s just put the ashes in a niche in a columbarium and save the soil. Or let’s reduce the body to organic substances to do something “useful,” like nurture the pansy bed or a forest tree (the latter common in Germany). The graveyard as an extension of the Church—a gathering of the community beyond those assembled for coffee and donuts after Mass to those assembled awaiting the Parousia)—has disappeared, with impact on our ecclesiology (flattened down to the here and now).
And our eschatology has disappeared—or at least gone under a bushel basket. When’s the last time you heard a sermon on the Four Last Things? They’ve disappeared. Hell as a potential reality has practically disappeared: in our Disneyesque theology, all dogs and people (except maybe Hitler) go to heaven. Purgatory has disappeared (along with Catholics’ practice of regularly offering stipends to offer Mass for the repose of friends and relatives). Death as a reckoning beyond ourselves has disappeared from funerals in favor of quasi-eulogies focused less on God and the deceased and more on the deceased.
The only thing that hasn’t disappeared is death. Indeed, we’ve embraced it ever more closely as a way of “solving” human problems, from “problem” pregnancies to end-of-life suffering.
Jesus promises to conquer the “last enemy,” death. (1 Corinthians 15:26). But we don’t need Jesus’ conquest, because we’ve made death-as-enemy disappear. We’ve turned it into our solution, even our “right.”
As a theologian, I’d add: since death is the Devil’s “gift” to humanity (see Wisdom 2:24; Hebrews 2:14), should we be surprised that death and its nature has disappeared, when its author has, too? Indeed, as St. Paul VI reminded us, his greatest feat is convincing people he doesn’t exist (and, therefore, death is a good).
Yep—lots of things have disappeared about death … except death.