This article appears in the June edition of Premier Magazine
The Equality of Death?
Last month I buried a woman. I had only met her two hours before she died. She was 92 years old and passed away quietly in her care home. I took the funeral at the local crematorium, which was attended by a few relatives, friends and some staff from the home. It was a quiet and unremarkable affair. Except for one thing – I got her name wrong. I confused Janet, with her daughter Jean, who promptly reminded me that it was not her funeral!
But you know neither Janet nor Jean, or the vast majority of the 156,600 people who die every day throughout the world. On the other hand a lot of people you and I think we know have died this year. David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, George Martin, Ed Stewart, Alan Rickman, Johann Cruyff, Ronnie Corbett, Merle Haggard, the voice of Lady Penelope on Thunderbirds, Victoria Wood and now Prince. Does it seem to you that there seems to be some kind of bonfire of the celebrities? Or is it just those of us who are middle-aged who are seeing the familiar names of our childhood dying? Or perhaps it is the ubiquitous use of social media that makes it seem as though more famous people are dying? Whatever the reason it seems as though death is never out of the news.
Of course it never was. There are those of us who find the obituary pages the most interesting of any newspaper. One of my favourite radio programmes is the BBC’s ‘Last Word’ which every week comes up with some fascinating obituaries. In a recent edition it covered everything from Nancy Reagan to Rachel Johnson. Who she? Rachel was the last surviving woman who was evacuated from the remote Scottish island of St Kilda in 1930. Obituaries are the stories of human lives that have ended and as such they tell us a great deal about our society, and those of us who are still living ‘under the sun’.
But what I am most interested in here is our response to celebrity death. What does it tell us about our society?
1) The Hopelessness of Life without God – It is true that many people, especially the well off, busy and self absorbed, find live perfectly liveable without any need for God. With the head, some are satisfied with the prevailing meta-narrative of atheistic naturalism, with the heart, no one is. On the one hand people cheer and sing the atheist anthem ‘imagine there’s no heaven’; on the other as soon as death appears so do the headlines about ‘tears in heaven’ and the the tweets about Prince ‘enjoying purple rain in heaven’. It appears that in popular culture, we still cannot face up to the nihilist existentialism of atheistic naturalism. If we acted and felt the way our philosophy tells us then we would realize that the death of anyone is just a rearranging of chemicals in the universe. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We come from nothing, we go into nothing and ultimately nothing lives on. But no one can really face that. Because within ourselves we know that it is not true. It seems that the Bible was right about eternity being in our hearts.
“I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end”(Ecclesiastes 3:10-11).
2) The Hypocrisy of Celebrity Culture – Have you noticed how everyone who dies is the best there ever has been, a hero, and a saint (except perhaps Osama Bin Laden)? Whilst I enjoy reading full-scale detailed obituaries, I dread the sound bites and the twee tweets that inevitably follow any celebrity’s death. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. You know that the latter time has arrived when meaningless guff such as that posted by President Obama appears on your phone! ‘ “‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said—and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.” Prince was a moral and fallible human being like the rest of us. His life was not exemplary and those who are looking for salvation through him or any other celebrity need to get a reality check!
The hypocrisy is shown in other ways too. On April the 18th more than 400 African refugees died in attempting to cross the Mediterranean. 400 human beings. The story appeared in a few newspapers but was quickly overtaken on the 21st by the death of Prince. Granted he was a celebrity and de facto his death is more newsworthy, but why were buildings not lit, and numerous column inches devoted to the 400 rather than the one? As a society we talk about equality but ironically it appears that in our celebrity dominated media world, death is not the great equaliser – it is the ultimate way of showing who really matters.
3) The Hope of Christ – I have a rather cynical friend who tweeted “ Right. I’m taking bets on who will be first to put a blog out on the passing of Prince and it’s Christological significance. Or something.” Such cynicism is understandable because it seems as though those of us in the church have to get our word in quickly. It has to be confessed that sometimes we can be as crass, sentimental, manipulative and insensitive, as anyone in ‘the world’. We too need to be careful that we don’t treat a celebrities death as somehow of more consequence than the 92 year old Janet’s of our world. Any death is a tragedy (yes even Osama Bin Laden’s). But every death also reminds us that we too are dying. We are mortal.
“Face up to death, thereafter anything is possible”.
Albert Camus declared “Face up to death, thereafter anything is possible”. The death of a celebrity shows us how little we have ‘progressed’ in this respect. We mourn, but not as do others. It’s as though our favourite TV show has ended and now all we can do is buy the box set and watch the repeats. We know little about the real lives of those who died – all we know are some of their public works and their shadows. They are images and illusions to us. But we miss our illusions and mourn for them. There are people who cannot shed a tear for a neighbour, yet weep buckets for the death of their favourite soap character. After the death of Matthew at the end of a Downton Abbey series, there was national mourning, protests and people who genuinely complained that their Christmas had been spoiled! All because an actor who wanted to leave the show early caused a rewrite of a script. I wanted to scream – get real, folks!
As a minister I have noticed that in the period between the death and the funeral people will often say words to the effect that it seems so unreal and even that they cannot wait to get back to reality. But death IS the ultimate reality. And our normal lives are often just shadows of that reality. For the atheist worldview, all that they can say is ‘suck it up, that’s the way life is’ – even though every inch of our body, soul and spirit, cries ‘no, there must be more’. And there is.
But it does not end with the ashes. There is the Christian hope, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. The bible speaks about grieving for our Christian brothers and sisters who die ‘in the Lord’. They have gone – although removed from our immediate experience (except as memories). But they have not ceased to exist. They are in a different (and better) place. Those of us left behind, who are believers in Christ, also believe that we have been given eternal life in Christ, and although our outward body is wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. More than that we believe that we shall be raised and moved from the shadowlands into the reality of the parallel universe of the new heavens and the new earth. I think my favourite description of this comes at the end of CS Lewis’s Narnia series, The Last Battle, when he describes what it is like to go ‘further up and further in’.
Celebrity deaths are mourned because we think we know them. Those whom we really do know we genuinely mourn. Sometimes the two combine. I knew a half blind elderly lady who used to attend my church in the Highland village of Brora. What many people did not know was that she was a personal friend of Prince Charles, who often used to pop in and see her when he was on holiday or business in the North of Scotland. She was a famous ‘fly-tyer’ and fishermen from throughout the world contacted her. She lived in relative obscurity and poverty until she died, when for some reason her obituary was put in The New York Times where it was read by the film maker, Eric Steel, who in 2013 made an astonishingly beautiful film about her life called. To Kiss the Water. To me that is a wonderful metaphor for the life of every believer. We may not be well known in the eyes of this world. We may not get an obituary in the Times. But we are written in the Lambs’ book of life, and we are honoured guests at the great marriage feast.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15). We are known.
Our Names Matter
Prince became famous as ‘the artist formerly known as prince’, when he changed his name to a symbol representing both genders (he did so in an era when two genders was all there were!). He did this as a protest against his record company but it does indicate an important point – our names matter. Many people presume that Prince was his stage name, but he really was called Prince Rogers Nelson at his birth. When I made my faux pas in Janet’s funeral, it really did matter. And I was thankful that in that blunt Dundonian working class manner, I was interrupted mid-prayer and put right! (Middle class people would have kept quiet, tut-tutted and it would never have been forgotten nor forgiven!!). We were burying and mourning a real person who had a real name which means something.
Which brings me on to the scary thought that we live after we die. There is an eternity, a day of judgement and resurrection to eternal life for those who are in Christ. Jesus tells his people “I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Jesus, the name above every name, died so that he could give his people new life complete with a new name. The white stone signifies purity and certainty. The hope of this world is fading, like a pop stars fading tune, but the promise of Christ is rock solid. He knows his people. He will never forget. Our name is written on his hands.
Perhaps its best to leave the last word with The Word – Ps 146 seems appropriate:
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortal men, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
the Lord, who remains faithful for ever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.”
This was an extended version of an earlier article posted on the Premier website