In a strange way, funerals are at the same time very private, and very public affairs.
We’re inclined to consider funerals private affairs. They are usually not open to the public. They involve family, friends, and loved ones; those, in other words, who have some sort of personal connection with the deceased. I have never heard of someone walking off the street into a funeral. And, with the very limited exception of the very famous—a pope, a prime minister, a princess—they are not broadcast or shared in any public way.
And yet they are not just private. We would consider it very, very sad—uncivilized even—for a funeral to be attended by one, or none. A funeral is something we do together. It is a social event. It is marked by grief and mourning instead of joy and happiness, but it is still an intrinsically social event.
No, funerals are not just private affairs. They affect us all. They have a significant place in our common life.
Why? Why should funerals—all funerals, not just for people like John Paul II, Pierre Trudeau, or Princess Diana—matter for public life? Because they are liturgical events. Funerals are where, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, our most basic, foundational assertions about what is true are on display and enacted. We speak through our actions and our words. What is said, how we treat the departed’s body, how we treat those left behind, how and what we speak about the dead says a great deal about what we believe to be true about the living.
One can speak all day of the social construction of reality, but everyone knows no amount of grammatical play or imagination—nothing—will bring a young man out of the deep alive. His broad smile, his look of admiration at his father, his uncomfortably tight embrace of his sisters, and his clear love for his mother cannot be recovered. This is a private truth, but it is also public truth. And there is nothing truer, more common to all, than death.
Or at least, almost everyone knows that. But there is an old set of practices still enacted by great communities of people. Between the tears and groaning, in the dark of an empty house, by the back door where an empty pair of work boots sits, in the temptation to despair when you see that empty place setting at the table, a whisper is afoot. A whisper which says: “Listen, I have something to tell you—a great mystery. Not all is as it seems…“
1 Corinthians 15:51-58 (King James Version)
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.