By no means am I a cultural expert, especially concerning the culture in which I currently live. But I do try to notice things and observe what exists around me. I struggle with this observation, though, because so often it turns to judgment and furthermore, I haven't decided for myself when it is or is not ok to judge a culture. Allowance for cultural variety and regard for higher morals or ideals do not easily compliment each other and I tend to fall off one side of the horse or the other. For now, my goal is simply to question. I can't come to conclusions and I can't pretend to understand the way people live around me, but I can pay attention and ask questions.
Since moving here, I have started to think about the ways in which people observe death and question whether we can gain insight into the spiritual health of a people through their customs for the passing away of life. It started last fall when I came across a funeral and wrote the following:
Death is a loud and noisy thing when it does not offer hope for eternity. When we do not acknowledge what is truly taking place – that a soul has left this world for the next, either to enjoy an eternity of satisfactory fulfillment and peace or to face eternal and excruciating separation from God – all of the ritual we produce is nothing more than empty, meaningless, destructive, sinister noise. All of the memories, all of grief, all of the talk are nothing more than smoke to cover the eyes of the living, satiating the screams inside them with clattering numbness.
Yesterday, I witnessed my first funeral in East Asia. The empty gaudiness of is made my soul sick. From what I’ve seen, funerals here are no time for meditation or reflection on life and its meaning. They are a time of loud and showy distraction from reality. In this society of disbelief in any higher deity, or for that matter, in any higher meaning, moral, or reality, death has been reduced to a crowded tent in the middle of the street, filled with neon lights, karaoke singers, and bored looking passers-by. Women put on make-up at a table and attempt to look grieved. Family shuffle through the music selection, picking songs that seem appropriate for the memory of the departed.
Christ said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” In this context, in this society, I take those words to mean, blessed are those capable of mourning. Humanity lives brokenness and thus to be fully human, we must know how to mourn it. If we don’t acknowledge our brokenness on any other given day of our lives, death, at least, is a time for our nature to slap us in the face. How wrong not to mourn when such a beating takes place! How can you declare with Paul, “Where, O Death, is your sting?” if you cannot feel death’s knife piercing your heart?
When a people are religious it at least enables them to realize what takes place in death; they are more fully human in their acknowledgment of the eternal and desire to touch the holy. The East Asians need something that is going to make them aware of their own human nature. A prick that will teach them to mourn this existence and to yearn for release from death’s sting. They need something that will force them to turn off the noise machines, to forgo the glittering lights, to leave behind the show, and to bleed with reality for once. To scream in the night for rescue as the noise of distraction is left behind and the heavy silence of eternity settles in their hearts. For no noise we frail humans create can drown out the roar of an eternity without God. But what is more, that awful roar of hell cannot overcome the glorious and surrounding chorus of Jesus Christ’s triumph. The crack of death’s back on Christ’s empty tomb is a deafening sound that echoes throughout time and space, even to the back alleys of my little neighborhood.
Let us pray that it is heard from our lips every time we open our mouths.