Death was the chief topic at church this morning. It is a sturdy old standby. Death, ironically enough, never seems to get old. Just when you might think it’s become old hat — that you’ve been there, done that and moved on — death has this way of reasserting itself in one’s life in some novel and unexpected way. Endlessly resourceful, death may sometimes take a holiday but, just like taxes, will always return demanding to be paid. And even if you purchase an island and declare personal sovereignty, you turn out still to be within the dominion claimed by death. You may argue and protest, of-course, but while the case is tied up in the courts death will simply take everything you own and move on. (Exactly like taxes, then.)
Someone who is well aware at the moment of the truth of all the above is Miley Cyrus. A few days ago her dog Floyd died suddenly. I intend no mockery here: as a lover of dogs, I have no doubt as to the genuineness of the grief felt by a dog owner when one dies. There can even be an added nakedness and rawness to the emotion. The mechanisms and rituals we human beings have for finding consolation and closure after the death of a fellow human being aren’t there in the same way when a pet dies. And no matter how senior, a dog’s life always seems to have been too short, because their lifespans are so short compared to ours.
Perhaps, Miley Cyrus being kind of the poet laureate of the current pop culture and Twitterverse, it’s worth noting some of what she’s said since her bereavement. These are most of her tweets on the subject of the death of her dog Floyd, over the course of several days, during which she also had to go out and perform on a concert tour:
So, the passage of a few days didn’t make it easier. If I judge the drift of Miley’s emotions correctly, she has only become more incensed day after day at the unfairness of a world that seems to carry on careless of the fact that Floyd is dead. The tour goes on, the beat goes on. “Life goes on;” that’s what some people say when someone dies, but for those stricken with grief that is exactly the problem: it can seem incredibly callous that life goes on as normal. Doesn’t everyone realize what’s been lost, what this means?
And what does it mean? Death is not obliged to provide a meaning when it comes to call. It is its own meaning: a full and blunt stop.
Hence the power of the readings from scripture at church this morning, on the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, reassembled and raised with flesh and blood and breath to live again and return to the land of Israel, and from the New Testament the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. That last story contains the famous two-word sentence: “Jesus wept.” It’s a puzzle, that one, because—if you happen to believe the story—Jesus knew that Lazarus would be alive again very soon. Indeed, he had already verbally indicated as much. So why weep? Why not laugh instead? Not knowing the mind of Jesus, a reader can only say “maybe.” As in, maybe he was struck so deeply by the grief of those around him—his own friends, the friends and neighbors of Lazarus—that the terrible tragedy of this full stop to Lazarus’ life weighed upon his humanity and gave him no choice but to cry his own tears in sympathy. And beyond his humanity, his knowledge of all the grief, all the endings of all the lives, in all of time … well, we can’t even conceive of and contemplate that kind of thing.
Miley Cyrus, who once recorded a quite fine version of Bob Dylan’s song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” might find some solace in another Bob Dylan song, namely “Death is not the End.” It’s a Dylan song from the 1980s, only we didn’t mention it in our review of the recent tribute album, Bob Dylan in the 80s, because it’s one of those tracks that seemed to stay too close to Dylan’s original (and somewhat plodding) version of the song on the album Down in the Groove. Although the song offers a litany of horrors about times when “the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men,” and “all that you’ve held sacred falls down and does not mend,” and “there’s no one there to comfort you with a helpin’ hand to lend,” the ultimate message is this plain statement of consolation: “Just remember, death is not the end.” Death is not the full stop, that thing above all that death claims for itself. So, at any rate, Bob himself says. It would be great, wouldn’t it, if someone would do a version of this song that seized on this refrain, and was in mood both celebratory and defiant?
But I almost forgot: someone did. In 1986, when the song was still an unofficial bootleg (an outtake from Infidels) a band named the Waterboys performed such a version, live in an Irish radio studio, just voice, guitar, mandolin and fiddle. The performance was so popular that it was named one of the best records of the year by listeners at the end of that year, even though it wasn’t even a record as such.
The audio holds up well via YouTube below.
Another song not unrelated to the subject at hand possesses a lyric so without pretense that it only could have been written by someone who had nothing left to pretend about; that was in this case Henry Francis Lyte, who died from his tuberculosis three weeks after completing it, in 1847. It would be hard to say that anyone has ever sung the song badly, which makes it a very special class of song. Below via YouTube is Emile Sandé singing “Abide with Me.”