Celebrating the Death of Meaning

Article by   October 2009
It has been a good couple of months for the celebrating of life at memorial services.  First, there was the celebration of Michael Jackson's life and then there was Ted Kennedy, enfant terrible turned elder statesman.  Both men, in their different ways, were proof positive that, in modern America, you only need to love your own kids and then at some point die in order to atone for any sins you may have committed against other people's beloved sons and daughters.   Yet even at these `celebrations' there are embarrassing moments when reality either breaks in or it takes a real act of will to ignore it.  With regard to the Jacksonfest, as one media pundit put it: `You know you're in trouble when someone has to use the phrase "Everyone is innocent until proven guilty" at your memorial service.'  And everybody knows what the skeleton in the cupboard at the Kennedy memorial was.  As Elvis Costello once sang, `It's the words that we don't say that scare me so.'

What I found most striking about the deaths of these two men was the language that was used by the media, language which raised a whole host of questions in my mind.  In particular, both deaths were described as tragedies, a hackneyed term, I am sure, but still interesting in this context.  After all, people die every day and no-one describes their deaths as tragic.  Does this mean that one has to be rich, famous, and talented/weird to die a tragic death?   I confess that the whole idea is rather perplexing, reflecting the same hierarchy of life that laws about hate crimes embody.  I have never understood why the teenager who kills someone because of the colour of their skin or their sexuality should be treated any differently by the courts to the one who kicks to death the homeless man on the street.   Does the lack of identity politics, a lobby group and electoral significance render a street dweller's life of any less value?  I have similar concerns regarding the practice of allowing victim's families to speak to the judge and jury in open court during sentencing: does the murder victim with no friends or relatives to speak for him thereby deserve less of a voice and less justice?

But there is more.  The idea of death - any death - as a tragedy is surely, by terms of contemporary discourse, also something of an anachronism.   While debates about the precise nature of tragedy and the tragic rage on in academic circles, it is generally agreed that for some event to be tragic, it must be set against an overall background of meaning.  On these terms, the death of the modern also signals the death of tragedy, for the loss of meaning is surely one of the things which truly separates the modern from the postmodern.    To read works by Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, Andre Gide, Albert Camus and even Samuel Beckett, is to read works which surely present a picture of life as confused, futile, absurd; but behind it all, there is a belief that somewhere there is a meaning to the grand scheme of things, even if that meaning is unknown and inaccessible to the protagonists.   In The Trial, Joseph K may have no idea what crime he is being charged with or why; but the assumption throughout is that he is being so charged and that somebody, somewhere knows the reason why.  The same is true for the poetry of the later Yeats or of T S Eliot: to say that the centre cannot hold means that there must be a centre; and the hesitant, frustrated banality of Prufrock requires that there must be a greatness, a transcendence that he cannot seem to achieve.  'I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker / And have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.' When modernism despaired of finding that meaning, whether as a result of Auschwitz or postcolonialism or Derrida or Jerry Springer or simply skeptical boredom, it also just as surely dismantled the possibility of tragedy and evacuated the language of tragedy of any meaning.

This is where these ridiculous `celebrations of life' come in to play.  Now, I have in the past regarded such things as horribly sentimental, a classic American attempt to make everything have a happy ending. And, boy - do Americans do like happy endings.  I remember my jaw hitting the floor some years ago when I watched a Disney version of Notre Dame de Paris where the Hunchback does not die but lives happily ever after.   I suppose I should have been grateful that the Americanisation of the story was somewhat incomplete in that Quasimodo did not also have corrective surgery which turned him in to a Brad Pitt lookalike --- though there is still time for a sequel, I guess.  But even so, the point of the story of Quasimodo is that the guy with the hump dies at the end and it is all terribly sad. My wife is meant to cry; and I am meant to feel angry at the raw deal Quasimodo has been dealt in the poker game of life; to take that away is to change the storyline beyond recognition.  I mean, imagine King Kong where the monkey sees the error of his ways, climbs down the Empire State Building, follows the Seven Spiritual Laws on How To Become a Better You By Not  Kidnapping Blonde Actresses and goes on to win Dancing with the Stars.  A happy ending, and surely much to be desired from the monkey's perspective; indeed, a heartwarming story of triumph over adversity; but, let's face it, the story would lose a certain something.

Is `celebrating the life' of a dear, departed simply symptomatic of this sentimental vacuousness at the heart of our culture?  Is it merely a postmodern reversal of little orphan Annie's song which finds a happy ending in the recollection of the sunrises of all our yesterdays rather than in the hope that the sun will come out tomorrow?  I am sure that, to some extent, this is the case; further, in the case of celebrities, I am sure that making death into one last performance is also a factor, though that perhaps applies less to the celebration of life for the likes of most of us.  As Evelyn Waugh commented in the late 1940s, `Liturgy in Hollywood is the concern of the stage rather than of the clergy.'  Replace `Hollywood' with `the modern Western world' and the statement is more true now than ever before.

But I also think that there is more to it than this. It also represents an acknowledgment that meaning has died.  In a world which denies there is any transcendent storyline to life, accessible or inaccessible, we are, as we are repeatedly told by the postmoderns, left to create our own meaning, our own stories, our own significance.  Gone are the gloom and doom of Conrad, Eliot, Kafka and Camus: gloom and doom depend upon some meaning out there somewhere; after all, you have to have something about which to feel gloomy and doomy, don't you?  And this is where death is such a problem. Every fibre in our being tells us that, when a loved one dies, it is terrible, significant, devastating; yet how so, when there is nothing about a life which transcends that life? How does one go about creating a meaning for it?   Not by looking to the future, as to resurrection, which is where the Christian would look.  No. There is no resurrection nor even reincarnation.  And as death itself is, in the memorable phrase of Wittgenstein, not an event in life, one cannot find its significance there.  Thus, it is only by ignoring death and celebrating life that, paradoxically, we can give death meaning.  I say `paradoxically' because in the very act of celebrating the life of the dead one, we acknowledge that we can find death's significance only in its insignificance.  It signifies nothing.  If life were really meaningful, the last thing we could ever do was celebrate it in the context of death.  Death would then truly be a tragedy, and no celebration could even be attempted. Instead, of course, we focus on what remains - or rather, what does not remain. There is no response to a meaningless boundary other than an act of defiant nostalgia.

And in this death of meaning, even the nostalgia itself is a veritable fiction.  The writer, Katherine Anne Porter, comments in her Notebooks that `[o]ne of the most disturbing habits of the human mind is its willful and destructive forgetting of whatever in its past does not flatter or confirm its present point of view.'  Go to the typical celebration of a life and you see this willful insomnia in spades.   The Catholic Church, even with its new, consumer-driven fast track to sainthood still takes a few years to confer the prize on the lucky three-times miracle worker.  But the secular world goes for canonization as soon as the first speaker at the `celebration' picks up the mike.  

Thus, a moderately talented dancer and OK singer who hadn't made an album that even his fans thought was up to much for the last twenty years and was also clearly a very disturbed and tormented middle aged weirdo becomes a godlike talent of surpassing innocence; and an old man who, if he had been either you or me, would have done hard time behind bars and never been put in charge of a cleaning roster at the local Old Age Pensioner Tea Dance, let alone legislation in the most powerful country in the world, becomes an elder statesman.  That he did good work as a legislator is arguable; that, if his name was Smith or Jones or Trueman he would never have been heard of, is incontestable.

To celebrate life at a funeral or memorial service is a nonsense.  It is an insult to the bereaved relatives who, at best, are surely only kidding themselves that the death is made somehow easier by the fact the life was worth living in the first place.  Surely that makes the death even less of a context for celebration.  It is also a ridiculous contradiction in terms: if life has meaning, then death is an outrage; if death is not an outrage, then life has no meaning.   In either case, what is there to celebrate?  And those of us who believe that life has a meaning have even less cause to celebrate than those who are `narrating themselves into their own storylines.'  Let's keep funerals for grieving and lamentation at the outrage that sin has perpetrated on the world.  Keep the happy endings for Disney's sugar-coated castration of classic fiction.

Carl Trueman is a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.


Carl Trueman, "Celebrating the Death of Meaning" (October 2009)
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