Our fascination with death

  • October 31, 2013

At the heart of the liturgical year are the great feasts of Christmas and Easter, the feast of eternal life becoming earthly in a new baby, and the feast of earthly life becoming eternal in the Resurrection. The Christian calendar hangs upon the great feasts of life. Yet notwithstanding the principal feasts, the opening days of November, the month in which we pray for the dead, are a direct answer the Church gives to the mystery of death. All Saints Day celebrates those who have died and are already enjoying the life of beatitude in heaven. All Souls Day prays for those who have died and, while still being purified in purgatory, will one day be in heaven. The Church does not ask us to look away from death. To the contrary, in November she forces us to look straight at it.

Last Saturday, my colleagues at the National Post produced a special issue which looked at the changing cultural, religious, political and technological aspects of death. It ran the Saturday before Halloween as part of the odd cultural phenomenon of extending Halloween backwards, making the entire month of October as a sort of secular advent for the feast of death. In a more liturgically conversant time, the feature would have run this Saturday, on All Souls Day, when we pray for the dead who, being in need of our prayers, are by definition, alive — enjoying a life that is changed, not ended.

The liturgical sensibility is restrained and modest. Death must be thought about, but it cannot dominate one’s thinking. The ambient culture makes both mistakes. There is the transformation of funeral rituals from occasions to mourn the dead into occasions of pretending that they haven’t died. The funeral has been replaced in many places by a sort of retirement dinner, featuring sentimental and silly stories, only lacking sincere best wishes for the future. On the other hand, popular culture — which is rarely restrained or modest — has a certain fixation with death.

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