Luminere, who invented motion pictures one hundred years ago this year, said, when he introduced his new invention, this wonder which fixed photographic images forever, motion immortalized on film, he said, “Death has been overcome.”
Traveling in the South of England, our car broke down. While we awaited repairs, I wandered through the yard of the village church. Eventually, I found myself in the cemetery surrounding the church. Over in one corner of the cemetery there was a beautiful, low, brick wall enclosing fifty graves. The grass had nearly choked the plot. A large granite slab, set in the wall, bore the words, “WE SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR SACRIFICE.”
Here were fifty graves of young men from New Zealand. They were all around the ages of 17 to 25 and all from New Zealand. Who were these and why did they die here, in this little English village, so far from home?
There was no clue at the church yard as to who they were or the circumstances of their deaths. I wandered down into the village. I found the town’s museum and inquired there. The attendant at the museum told me, “Strange that you should ask, I have no idea, but given a few days I could certainly find out.”
As I was not going to be there for a few days, I asked a couple of other people in town. No one knew. I surmised that they were soldiers who were stationed in this little town during World War I. Victims of the flu epidemic in 1918.
And no one knew. The impressive inscription in granite was a lie. We had forgotten their sacrifice. No one could remember.
We live by what Ernest Becker called, the “vital lie,” the life-giving lie that there is immortality to be had in this world. We say it in different ways. Sometimes we say it with war monuments done up in eternal granite or bronze. At other times we say it through endowed chairs at the universities. See? You will not die, will not fade, you (or at least your name) shall live forever.
Elie Wiesel stands and says of the millions of victims of the Nazi Holocaust, “We promise that we will never forget you.”
But we do. We will forget, given enough time, even so great a horror as Auschwitz. We forget. Everything dissolves.
In his last speech, Socrates urged his hearers to ponder only those things which endure. Philosophers must speak eternity, purity, immutability, these are the things sought by intelligent Greeks. And yet this is also a lie. Socrates died and, despite the claims of the Duke Department of Philosophy, he was also fodder for finitude, decay and corruption.
Will you agree with me that one of the sad, frustrating things about grieving over someone you love is that you promise yourself, I will not forget. I will remember her just as she was — those eyes, that touch, the way she laughs, the sound of that voice. But even as you promise, scarcely a week after the funeral, she begins to slip through your hands. Over time, you do forget. Things fade from memory. Even the one that you love very much is unavailable to you. Eternity, purity, immutability are not to be had in this life. To say that they are is a lie, though a lie with enough vitality to sustain millions.
In Pericles’ great funeral oration at the end of the Athenian War, the greatest of all orators has the honesty not to attempt to assuage the grief of those who are mourning the victims of the war by offering them a lie, even a vital one. Rather, Pericles says that those present should pray that they will never have the misfortune to die in battle, as these young men. He tells the grieving parents that some of them are still young enough to have other sons and, if they do, this may provide them some modicum of consolation.
Never does the great Pericles say that dying in battle is good or that such death leads to immortality, or other such lies. And I admire him for that. Death is death.
This is the biblical view. The person who says, in response to the church’s belief of resurrection, “Well, the way I see it is, when you’re dead, you’re dead,” is really very close to the Christian view. We really do believe that death is death. The ravages of death cannot be assuaged through cheap consolation, a vital lie, no matter how well-meaning or finely crafted the lie.
Jesus was dead. The one in whom there had been such life, now lay in the grip of death. He was not sleeping deeply. He did not “live on in our memories.” He was dead, entombed behind a great stone, guarded by soldiers, now three days, dead. And, despite our lies, vital and otherwise, when you are dead, you are dead. End of story, finis.
“Never let me hear that brave blood has been shed in vain,” said Sir Walter Scott. “It sends an imperious challenge down all the generations.” Poor old Romantic fool. Don’t tell Scott, but brave blood is frequently shed in vain. The greatest heroics upon the battlefield, or in the hospital ward, or upon the football field win no one immortality.
“Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all who breathe away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day” We sing it every year at commencement. It’s our university hymn. The grass withers, the flower fades, we are like dust — Psalms 90.
When Dante is led by Virgil to the underworld, and he gazes upon the throngs, the millions of the dead shuffling along in somber procession, he says, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Later, in “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot thought of Dante, paraphrasing him when he looked upon the throngs shuffling along London Bridge, shuffling along King William Street, shuffling along, as are we all, toward death.
“I will show you fear,” he said, “in a handful of dust” (30). If there be hope for us, hope which is not a lie, then it must be hope not of our own creation, mortal as we are, not the result of wishful thinking, human potential, something outside of us and our finitude, some stunning intrusion, some act of God reversing our shuffle toward the grave, overcoming the final enemy, something which in power defeats death, gives life, some dawn not of our devising, something which shakes our death-dealing world to its foundations, some descent to us, some divine rolling back of the great stone under which we all labor, some light in the dark of death.
“As the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone….His appearance was like lightening, and his clothing white as snow…..the angel said to the women, ‘Do not fear; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised….”

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