I didn’t watch the “memorial” tribute to Michael Jackson, but in catching some of the networks’ continuously-running snippets, I’ve been struck by something: how it is that events like this—public, pseudo-funereal, slickly-produced homages to the celebrity dead—have subtly but profoundly shaped our understanding of what a Christian funeral is (or should be).
It is commonplace now in many churches to use the term “Celebration of Life” or something similar instead of “funeral.” The latter is too depressing, the argument goes. In my United Methodist tradition, the preferred terminology is “Service of Death and Resurrection,” but, for many, this too is gloomy and sad—the “Death” part anyway. So clergy give in to the desires of the grieving family (how can you condemn their wishes in the midst of their white-hot pain?) and preside over a series of funny stories told by friends and family and often the clergy themselves.
I don’t mean to be insensitive to grieving families. I have gone through the heartbreak of losing an only sister. The funny stories, the heartfelt tributes, the sentimental music—these are all essential to the process of grieving the dead. It is important that we remember, retell, relive, and perhaps most importantly, lovingly embellish the stories of our loved ones now gone.
But the sorts of eulogies often shared in a church funeral are better suited for the (very necessary) after-party at the local pub (or for the wake that precedes the funeral). This is not because funerals must be formal, stuffy, humorless, and boring, but rather because the center of attention at a Christian funeral is not—gasp!—the deceased but the risen Christ.
A funeral liturgy helps us grapple with the mystery of death as it is intertwined with the mystery of Christ’s rising from death. The language of a funeral liturgy is poetic and metaphorical and that is its power. The rituals and symbols of a Christian funeral—a burial pall, say—exert a power over our imaginations not easily reducible to tidy explanation. “You don’t have to get it,” as Thomas Lynch has observed, “it will get you.”
But when we “put on” a funeral—oops, I mean a “Celebration of Life”—after the pattern of something like a celebrity tribute (however smaller in scale it may be), we have left the realm of mystery and death and hope and have denied the dead and ourselves an encounter with ancient words, rituals, and symbols that both confront and disarm the power of death over us.
The talented, complicated Michael Jackson is being mourned as if he were a god. But he was not divine. He, like each of us, was a mere mortal. And when our mortality is greeted by the mystery of a crucified love, no glittering tribute, no funny story, can match the beauty and power and poetry of such a meeting.