From a Death-Denying to a Death-Defying to a Death-Deriding Society


As we journey from the wintry days of Lent into the spring of another Easter season, we celebrate the highest holy days of our liturgical year, the Easter Triduum. Christ's passion, death, and resurrection should give us pause to reflect on our human mortality. And not only on our own individual passing but also on what society would have us believe about death. Unless we come to grips with the reality of our own dying, we can never appreciate the full meaning of Christ's rising.

Over the past quarter century our human culture has changed its focus at least three times when it comes to dealing with death and defining what death really means. We've moved from a death-denying to a death-defying to a death-deriding society. For example, 25 years ago our civilization was bent on the death-denying attitude toward mortality. Not only were family members dissuaded from waking their deceased at home, they were expected to confine their mourning to a few hourly visits in a sterile funeral parlor where their loved one, clad in make up and rouge, appeared to be sleeping rather than dead. Even the word "dead" was being obscured from our daily commute. Many cities changed street signs which once read "dead end" to "no outlet" or "no exit." The word "death" became repulsive and many folks were going to great lengths to deny its very existence.

More recently, since the health sciences have progressed further in the past 10 years than in all the centuries of recorded medical history combined, our society has moved from those subtle death-denying years into the more physically attractive, and far more physically aggressive, death-defying age. Today our average life expectancy has been extended to 77 years. More people are celebrating their 100th birthday than ever before. Plastic surgery, formerly reserved for Hollywood stars, promises to make actors of us all. Hair thickeners, hair sprays, and hair dyes, once the exclusive touch-up domain of females, are becoming more acceptable for men as well. Even the skin balms and wrinkle reducers are marketed to both sexes. And speaking of sex, can anyone dispute the death-defying impact that the pharmaceutical companies have made on the human pleasure principle? Of course, in the event that we don't actually defy death during this generation, we can always have our bodies frozen and then thawed when all the cures for aging and dying have been discovered. Does this sound death-defying or what?

But just when we think we've heard it all, someone manages to drag our concept of death to an all new low. Now we must brace ourselves for the latest reality-show approach which is sure to move society from death-defying to death-deriding; where death itself is reduced to the ridiculous. Case in point: Two weeks ago a young theatrical troupe began advertising a rather disturbing casting call. The person who auditions for this part must be terminally ill because the script requires a real human corpse for center stage when the curtain rises. If our faith communities don't protest this latest "degradation of the human body in the name of art," let's hope that the health department, at least, will step in and close the first performance before this play opens.

All in all our society has moved from death-denying, to death-defying, to death-deriding in its view of the end of life. This is a far cry from Easter's biblical tomb with the stone rolled aside. The true Christian attitude toward mortality requires that we neither run away with the soldiers who were guarding Christ's body nor rush inside the sepulchers of medicine, make up, or make believe to hide from the reality of death. Our concentration is not about living eternally for ourselves here on earth, but rather about loving God and our neighbor each day before we die. Then we shall rise again to live for all eternity, in joy, with the resurrected Lord.

Amen. Alleluia.

Comments can be sent to: FatherBobPagliari@Yahoo.com

Associate Director,
Catholic Charities, New York