top of page

Death and Memory

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Caravaggio: The Raising of Lazarus

Carl R. Trueman's piece on death in the latest First Things includes a crushing critique of "life celebrations" by contrast with the BCP's burial liturgy:

Life is fragile, and death is devastating. These are two biblical truths, which we need to place at the heart of the Church’s life. A moment’s reflection on “celebrations of life” indicates that they can occur only in affluent and comfortable environments. They are an attempt to gloss life and death with the aesthetics of our affluence. Think of celebrating life at a funeral, and then listen to the burial rite from the Book of Common Prayer:
“Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?”

Trueman is right that such “life celebrations” suppress the reality of death — an impulse, perhaps, to speed through Holy Week straight to Easter Sunday while shedding a minimum of tears on Good Friday.

There is obviously a genuine theological insight related to this impulse: Christ has triumphed over death. But the Church calendar teaches us that as mortal and finite beings — which is to say historical creatures — we live in seasonal rhythms. We do not experience all of eternity at once. There is indeed a time for everything: for mourning as well as joy. To mourn the dead does not deny the Resurrection. Rather, it acknowledges the reality of sin and our need for a Redeemer.

By complete happenstance I read Trueman’s essay on the five-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Some of Trueman’s themes resonated with a remembrance of her I wrote later that year in The Imaginative Conservative titled “A Grandmother’s Life, Death, and Resurrection.” In my piece I rejected the attempts to deny death common in our culture:

It’s standard practice in these kinds of remembrances to omit or to sanitize the details of death—to insulate ourselves from the nature of death, to make death a natural and comfortable friend. But this is ultimately a lie. In the deepest sense, death is unnatural. Death is wrong. Death is an enemy—the last enemy to be conquered.

And yet I also sought to celebrate my grandparents' lives at the same time, walking through the events of their long and historic lives:

She was the last of my grandparents and one of the last of her generation. In theory, I do not put much stock in titles such as “The Greatest Generation.” If one is inclined to feel rueful about the state of America today, it would be hard to exempt our grandparents from some share in responsibility. But even so, it is impossible to look at my grandmother’s life and the life of her husband and their contemporaries without a degree of awe. Grandma was born on January 28, 1920—the day after Wyoming voted to ratify the women’s suffrage amendment and eleven days after Prohibition took effect. Woodrow Wilson, though largely incapacitated by stroke, remained president, and the debate over the Treaty of Versailles continued to rage in the U.S. Senate. She came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War, both of which will soon be gone from living memory. Grandma’s death severs our family’s last living link to the epochal events of the 1930s and ’40s. Her passing represents the passing of a historical era...
For those of us who knew her, the historical importance of her death pales in comparison to the personal tragedy of losing her. For, like all deaths, my grandmother’s death primarily severs our family’s link to her—to her wit and humor, her vibrant personality and faithful character, her storytelling and long memory.

Dante may be right about such remembering, per Trueman: “ ‘Life brings no greater grief / Than happiness remembered in a time / Of Sorrow.’ And Dante was describing the Second Circle of Hell, not suggesting an appropriate liturgy for a Christian funeral service.”

But there is nevertheless a natural and good impulse to remember those who have passed, an impulse which mingles joy and sorrow. Part of the joy is in the shared memories of the dearly departed: those who live remember together. And while there is no place for such remembering at the graveside itself, it is nevertheless an inevitable and good part of the broader mourning of those who die.

Those of us who are in Christ have a greater joy stemming not from the past but from present and future. Death is indeed not the end of the story. We mourn the death, we remember the life with gratitude, but we entrust our loved ones to God, and we anticipate eternity with joy and hope, firmly convinced that God will bring about restoration and indeed that he is already bringing it about for us in Christ.

As I wrote of my grandmother:

The God who is God became a human being, died on a Roman cross, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. And the God who created all things will return to put all things to right. He will undo and reverse the curse of death. My grandmother’s tired, worn out, battered, emptied, and hemorrhaged body will—“in a flash, at a trumpet crash”—all at once be as Christ is. Her speech—garbled by stroke, silenced in death—will be changed to a pure speech. She will lift her beatified voice—she and all the nations—and “together they will call upon the name of the Lord and worship him with one accord.”

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar.

bottom of page