“death is something that always has to be enclosed by an elaborate set of explanations. It is an ancient litigation, this turning of horror into stories, and it is a lonely piece of work, trying to turn the stories back into horror, but somebody has to do it—especially now that God has reverted to a state of fire.”—Tony Hoagland, “Fire,” What Narcissism Means to Me (2003)
Funerals suck. And they hurt. On so many different levels. If you were really close to the deceased, you’re probably in a great deal of pain. Probably devastated. The sense of loss can be so all-consuming, so overwhelming, so suffocating. You feel like you’re drowning in it.
No one prepares you for how profoundly physiological it is. Your chest tightens so much that your breathing grows shallow—frightfully shallow, almost asthmatic. Your head swims with a dizziness that’s halfway between roller-coaster gross and the drunk spins. You shake uncontrollably from time to time, for no apparent reason. And you feel really nauseous, so much so that you think you might puke—and sometimes do.
Even if you weren’t particularly close to the deceased, seeing others in so much pain—especially people you know and love—usually triggers a powerful empathetic response. Before you know it, you are, quite literally, feeling their pain.
But we have another reason for detesting funerals; a reason which is less noble, less respectable, and less socially-acceptable; a reason which is, well, sort of selfish: funerals force us to confront our own mortality. And this makes all of them more or less uncomfortable. But some funerals are considerably more uncomfortable than others, and I think I know why.
There are, to my mind, three distinct types of funeral: (1) funeral for the sinful, (2) funeral for the elderly, and (3) funeral for the innocent. Each is shaped by our moral assessment of the recently deceased.
1) Funeral for the Sinful: Few, if any, view this person’s death as accidental. All to the contrary, the deceased was morally compromised in some way. We blame them for what happened. Though sad, we all know they had it coming. After all, they made bad decisions, and these bad decisions led them to this untimely end (e.g., the addict who overdosed on heroin, the drunk driver who careened off a cliff, the career criminal stabbed to death in prison, the chain-smoker felled by lung cancer). This kind of funeral is, existentially speaking, by far the easiest funeral to attend. Sure, if you use heroin on a regular basis, attending the funeral of a fellow addict might be profoundly unsettling. But in all likelihood, the vast majority of the people at the funeral do not use heroin, and, as a consequence, they don’t have to worry about dying of a heroin overdose. It’s easy to avoid facing up to your own mortality at a funeral for the sinful, so long as you yourself do not engage in the sinful practice in question.
2) Funeral for the Elderly: You can’t blame an old person for dying at 94. Nor can you deny the fact that their fate will one day be yours. But there’s no reason to dwell on this thought. After all, you’re in your 30s or 40s or 50s, and 94 seems so very far away.
3) Funeral for the Innocent: Existentially speaking, this is by far the most difficult funeral—the degree of discomfort is outrageously high—because the deceased cannot be plausibly blamed for their death (e.g., the 20-year-old athlete who drops dead of a heart attack as a result of a rare genetic defect; the 36-year-old hospital employee who was accidentally shot by a police officer whilst driving to work on a bicycle; the 32-year-old mother of three who dies of breast cancer despite a lifetime of clean living, yoga, and veganism; or the 43-year-old conference participant who randomly chokes to death on a piece of steak at dinner). “When it comes to death,” Epicurus maintained, “all men live in a city without walls.” When the innocent die, we’re forced to remember this.
At the funeral of a sinful man, death’s voice is but a whisper: barely audible and easily ignored. At the funeral of an elderly relative, death speaks to you in a voice that’s clear and unmistakable—yet strangely distant, and oddly unconvincing. But at the funeral of an innocent man, death grabs you by the shoulders and shouts in your face: “You could be next! Yes, you! This could happen to you! Today, tomorrow, or the day after that! So don’t get too comfortable!”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)