No One Dies Any More

My brother-in-law died last week. In church. Right after singing two hymns to the congregation as his wife played the piano. Not virus related. Natural causes.

He was widely known around this area as a singer, having sung at over 300 funerals, and had even cut a record or two when he was younger. When I had my radio program in Hattiesburg,

 

“Brother Benny, Your Radio Pastor,” he sang my theme song on every broadcast for three years, live on tape.

 

Of course, I preached his funeral. Although it was a graveside service only, over in Walthall County where he was raised, I’d say that about 200 people showed up. As the primary “text” of my sermon, I used the words of the biblical hymn that he sang moments before he died, and I made the point that not many of us get to preach our own funeral sermon as he did in singing that last song in public. In fact, they played one of his CDs on the public address system, so he also sang at his own funeral.

 

I’ve been writing in local newspapers for about ten years, mostly about the Navy, and I’ve never said much about the fact that I was a chaplain for 25 of my 36 years on active duty.

 

I never wanted readers to get the idea that I was peddling religion; but, as full disclosure, I was a Southern Baptist-endorsed Navy chaplain after having served as an enlisted man and as a line officer.  As a chaplain, my job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

 

As someone who has conducted well over 250 funerals, military and civilian, I have what you might call a “professional” interest in the subject, and I have noticed an interesting trend in newspaper obituaries lately: hardly anyone “dies.” We all just “pass away.” Maybe General Douglas McArthur got it going with his speech to Congress in 1951 when, after having been fired by President Harry Truman for wanting to bomb China and use Chinese nationalist forces on Taiwan against the Communists during the Korean War,  he concluded his presentation by famously saying, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

 

Anyway, I was in New Orleans the other day, and I bought a copy of the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate newspaper,  and it must have been the weekly paid “obituary issue” because it contained four pages of closely spaced obits, well over 100, and hardly anyone died.

 

They either passed away, or their bereaved families remembered them with such euphemisms as “She slipped silently into eternal slumber;” or “was born into eternity,” or my favorite: “He rode his Harley off into the heavenly distance.”   

 

As you know, many of the large national daily newspapers, such as the New York Times, have a full-time obituary writer on the staff, or at least they did until the newspaper apocalypse, and they already have thousands of pre-written obits for celebrities, politicians, and other news-worthy individuals already “in the can,” just awaiting minor updating and publication.

 

It’s true, I think, that we shy away from the reality of death and funerals. It’s just human nature. Particularly in America. It’s an old book, but read The American Way of Death, written by Jessica Milford in 1963.

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