On the celebration of death

Posted by Sappho on March 20th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary, Quaker Practice


Among Friends, when one of us dies, our memorial worship service goes like this: We gather in silence, as we usually do for worship, but when people are moved to speak, the messages usually connect somehow to the one who has died. The worship service becomes a focused celebration of the life of the deceased.

I confess, though, that there have been a couple of times in my life when my reaction to a death has been, instead, more of a celebration of death. The first time that I can remember reacting in this way, the dead man was Generalissimo Franco, the long time dictator of Spain. The most recent time, the dead man was Osama bin Laden.

And maybe, to the degree that I felt moved to joy at these deaths, I am a bad Quaker, and a bad Christian.

Still, there’s a line I won’t cross. My relief at Franco’s death had a good deal to do with the fact that, as long as he lived, his dictatorship also lived, and that his death might clear the way to democracy. And my relief at bin Laden’s death had a good deal to do with the fact that, at the time of his death, he still headed an organization that would happily again kill thousands of American civilians if given a clear opportunity.

The same can’t be said for Fred Phelps. Old, frail, and near death, he has, his estranged son has said on Facebook, been excommunicated by the family church he founded. Over 20 members of the church, mostly members of his own family, have left, and now, as he is dying in hospice, his own excommunicated children and grandchildren are barred from his bed.

His church still lives, and may survive his death for a while, bringing its ugly pickets to funerals as it has in the past for soldiers, victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and many others. But he himself has no more power to harm anyone, and his death will free no one from anything. And so I can feel no joy at his death, only sorrow for the life that it bookends. After all, what kind of a life is it, to be remembered only for a church so hateful that it bars your own children from your deathbed?



3 Responses to “On the celebration of death”

  1. D. Says:

    I figure that the amount of love he spread in life is the amount of love that will surround him as he approaches death.

    Fleeting pity is probably the best I can do.

  2. Kai Jones Says:

    I grieve for the lost hope of change, just as I did when my mother died.

  3. Sappho Says:

    Yeah, sadness for the lost hope of change is most of what I feel. And also sympathy for the ones who left, but who still feel the loss now of the parts of him they loved (presumably not the hateful picketing part, since they left).