Sunday, March 16, 2008

Naked Truth: Holy Week 2008

Based on a sermon given on Palm Sunday 2008 in the Chapel of Trinity College.

The work of funeral directors and of those concerned with the running of cemeteries and crematoria has never appealed to me greatly, with my apologies to fans of the morbid glamour of Six Feet Under. My gratitude however for the fact that there are people who do concern themselves with these indispensable functions has only grown with the news of a novel occupational hazard in crematoria, the exploding mobile phone.

Phone batteries can explode when overheated, and apparently these cases stem from mourners slipping the deceased’s ‘cell’ into clothing or coffin prior to funeral and cremation, and disaster ensuing when the contents are committed to the flames of the furnace.

This phenomenon of the mortuary mobile could reflect a sort of ultimate funeral insurance for the deceased – if you weren’t really dead, perhaps you could call or at least text for help. There is an urban legend drawing on older technology, about the founder of the Christian Science movement, Mary Baker Eddy, whose tomb in Boston was alleged to have had a telephone installed, just in case!

But I suspect the case of the fatal phone in the furnace is about something else, and that it reflects the tendency for funerals and burials to be increasingly laden, not just with objects but with words and symbols too, in ways that suggest something of a contemporary crisis about death.

Inside coffins, it’s not just phones that are turning up, but all sorts of objects associated with status, or work, or recreation – whatever defines the deceased in the eyes of the their loved ones. Evidence suggests more and more objects are being placed with corpses – golf putters, gadgets, toys, a sports season ticket, guns, cigarettes, have all featured in recent times. We are beginning to resemble the ancient Egyptians in apparent desire to equip ourselves for the afterlife – but there lies the great irony. It seems there is an inverse relationship between what we actually believe about death and what follows it, and the amount of stuff we want to heap on and around the dead.

Those of us who officiate at funerals can tell you that even if we don’t see what is inside the coffin, there is a sort of verbal proliferation outside it that has become normative for many. Eulogies were once rare, and accorded to persons of particular distinction. Now many seem to think a funeral is incomplete without a handful of them – although the idea of a sermon may seem genuinely puzzling.

Both the verbal and the material forms of funereal accumulation or adornment are problematic, because they are attempts to shield or wrap ourselves in assurances about who they were and who we are that avoid the simple stark reality of death.

One of the reasons crucifixion was a demeaning and shameful end, even by comparison to other forms of execution, was that it amounted to an extended exhibition or humiliation of the sufferer. A victim was stripped not only of safety and health but of garments. Even the loincloth of iconographical tradition adorning the crucified Jesus protects our sensibilities rather than his dignity - it is unlikely to have existed. The crucified were held up naked for ridicule, as well as agony - a ridicule that consisted in taking away in death everything that might have covered or adorned the victim in life. Jesus’ burial also has no trappings associated with it – a niche hewn from rock, borrowed for a time – and no cell phone.

Jesus’ death and burial, an end which involves stripping, shedding or giving up all that has been grasped or given before, contrasts markedly with our accumulative approaches to death and what lies beyond it. And yet because of that he does speak to us beyond death. Jesus’ death itself asks us whether the measure of a life really lies in what we insist on wrapping it with, now or retrospectively – wealth or possessions, status or qualifications, or whatever we risk using to avoid our mortality. Can we face the possibility of our own death without the cell phone or the high-sounding words assuring us that we really were that great? Perhaps the measure of our life is really more what we gave up or let go of, in order to be really, truly human.

For on the cross, this is what Jesus exhibits, freely and without artifice. He takes to the cross and grave nothing more than our common humanity, a life lived for other’s sake and for love’s sake. And in this death bare of artifice Christians find a life worth remembering, worth following; and more than that, hope of life beyond death itself.