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 most recently, Prince. Does it seem to you that there is some kind of bonfire of the celebrities taking place? 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 passing away? 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. 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’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9). What does the response to celebrity death tell us about our culture?
THE HOPELESSNESS OF LIFE WITHOUT GOD
It is true that many people, especially the well off, busy and self-absorbed, find life perfectly liveable without any need for God. Although some seem satisfied with the prevailing meta-narrative of atheistic naturalism, on a heart level, no one is.
On the one hand, people cheer and sing the atheist anthem ‘imagine there’s no heaven’. But as soon as death appears so do the headlines about ‘tears in heaven’ and 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 realise 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. The Bible is 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).
THE BIBLE IS RIGHT ABOUT ETERNITY BEING IN OUR HEARTS
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)? While I enjoy reading 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 great musician, but he was also 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 examine their grasp on reality.
The hypocrisy is shown in other ways too. On April 18th more than 400 African refugees died in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean. 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.
DEATH IS THE ULTIMATE REALITY
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 its 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 celebrity’s death as somehow of more consequence than the 92-year-old Janets of our world. Any death is a tragedy. But every death also reminds us that we too are dying; we are mortal.
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.
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’ (Revelation 14:13). They have gone. But although they are removed from our immediate experience, 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’ (2 Corinthians 4:16). 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.
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 Kiss the Water.
That story 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 Lamb’s 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’ (Psalm 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 that means something.
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 star’s 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 it’s best to leave the last word with the Word. Psalm 146:3-10 seems appropriate:
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – the Lord, who remains faithful for ever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord. (NIV 1984)