Tuesday, May 5, 2020

In Whatsoever Wise Live We

When I lived for a summer near Siezenheim, Austria, in 1970, I often attended Mass at the village's Pfarrkirche, its parish church (photo), which - as is typical of so many European and older American Catholic and Protestant churches - is surrounded by a parish cemetery. To enter that small but beautiful baroque church, one had first to walk through that cemetery, where locals liked to visit and decorate the graves of their relatives - along with the cemetery's most noteworthy grave, that of Hapsburg Archduke Ludwig Viktor (1842-1919), Kaiser Franz Josef's younger brother who had lived nearby in Schloss Klessheim, on the very grounds of which I was doing my German language study.

To walk regularly through one's local cemetery en route to the church where most of those buried there had once worshipped is a particularly wholesome reminder both of the communion of saints and of one's own very real mortality. In modern America, however, most of us experience fewer and fewer such reminders. What was once a routine churchgoing experience is increasingly unlikely as the distance between churches and cemeteries has grown - so much so that sometimes the longest part of a funeral is the drive to the cemetery! Increasingly, cemeteries are far away places seldom visited, seldom encountered in any meaningful way.

That physical distance may contribute to the problem, but it is really much more a symptom of the modern social reality in which death has become increasingly invisible. Even at funerals, the body of the deceased is increasingly absent. What was once the center of attention at a funeral is increasingly not there at all! No wonder Frank Sinatra's I Did it My Way may be more commonly heard at "funerals" than In Paradisum.

But now, all of a sudden, into this strange, inhuman society of death-denial, the universal experience of human mortality has re-appeared - in this instance dying on a widespread society-wide scale. (In just a few months, the United States has experienced more COVID-19 deaths than American combat deaths in a decade of war in Vietnam.)

Ironically, as death has reasserted itself on the human stage, funerals have disappeared, a curious consequence of pandemic precautions. Perhaps that has always been the case during plagues, when the number of deaths combined with fear of disease undermine normal expectations. Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War described in gruesome detail the consequences of the great plague which hit Athens in 430 B.C., during the second year of the war, killing perhaps 25% of its population. Thucydides, who himself caught the disease and recovered, described the plague's catastrophic effect on society and piety as people increasingly neglected their religious obligations toward the dead.

The loss of such all-important, traditional rituals as the Wake - or "Receiving Friends" as it is called in this part of the country - along with the loss of many of the funeral and burial rites themselves, is a psychic and social disaster, the toll of which on our world we cannot yet measure. Meanwhile, it has left us alone with death, with our own mortality which we have suddenly been forced to remember.

There is an old saying, "In whatsoever wise live we, die we."  Never in my long lifetime has that obsessively ignored but utterly commonplace fact come back into public consciousness as forcefully as it has since this pandemic. The question is: what impact will it have on how we live?

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