CHAPTER 10

Funeral Games (Joy)

I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.

—Ecclesiastes 8:15

Once I was visiting an aid worker compound in Juba, South Sudan. The world’s youngest nation had languished under the weight of famine, political violence, tribal warfare, and a failing economy since its founding in 2011. Our organization was one of hundreds of NGOs seeking to provide assistance. Our South Sudanese and expatriate staff were doing amazing work through food programs, clean water projects, and leadership development. But they shared with me that many days, the labor felt like a drop in the bucket.

Scrawled on the whiteboard in one of the cramped offices of the compound was a quote from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Beautiful and terrible. It’s true in South Sudan. It’s true everywhere. As I type this, I am watching unimaginable scenes of desperation play out at the Kabul airport. Afghanistan is seventy-two hundred miles away from my little home in the mountains of North Carolina, but it feels as close as a heartbeat thanks to my television, the internet, and the faithful work of journalists there.

These days, the sorrow of an entire world is at our fingertips. We spend our days scrolling through headlines and images of suffering from across the globe. We live in constant cognitive proximity to the world’s greatest disasters. On the one hand, there is a blessing in the exposure that globalization has gained for those in need. We are able to advocate, vote, give, and pray in ways that are unprecedentedly informed. But on the other hand, I wonder sometimes if our hearts were meant to know so much. Each of us carries our own personal sorrows, great and small, trivial and significant. When you add the weight of the world’s sorrows to that, our compassion can easily be fatigued beyond capacity. Physiologically, it is a lot to bear. How do you wrap your brain around it all, bring your beating heart to care for all the pain there is in this beautiful, terrible world?

The temptation of course is to numb, to steel yourself into feeling nothing, to become like Teflon so nothing is absorbed and everything rolls off you. But, as Brené Brown has been so good to remind us, we cannot selectively numb.1 To choose numbness is to disregard all the wonder and mystery and pleasure this world has to offer.

To choose numbness is not the way of God, who was so brokenhearted by the sin of the world that He chose to put on skin and step directly into the sorrow. God was powerfully committed to His grief. He subjected Himself to the world’s worst pain in order to redeem us and rescue His creation. Numbness was not the way of Jesus, who was so moved with compassion that He touched the untouchables, fed exhausted crowds even when He Himself was exhausted, and washed the feet of those who would go on to abandon Him.

Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”2

There are certainly times when good cheer feels impossible. Our ancestors understood this. The history of mourning is replete with rituals of sadness. But there are also some incredible rituals of joy to be found in the midst of mourning.

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Book 23 of the Iliad begins with a scene of grief. Achilles and the Myrmidons are mourning the death of their beloved friend and comrade Patroclus. After a period of weeping and wailing aloud, the men partake of a feast and prepare a funeral pyre for the body of Patroclus. Then, they begin to play games.

The funeral games of the Iliad consisted of chariot races, boxing, wrestling, footraces, archery, and spear throwing. In the course of the competition, there was trash talk, laughter, bitter rivalry, and intervention from the gods. Achilles presided over the games and distributed gifts and prizes to the winners of the various events. All of this transpired a mere two days after the grief-stricken Achilles led his men in mourning.

All as one

the armies cried out in sorrow, and Achilles led the chant.

Three times they drove their full-maned stallions round the body,

Myrmidon soldiers mourning, and among them Thetis stirred

a deep desire to grieve. And the sands grew wet,

the armor of fighting men grew wet with tears,

such bitter longing he roused.3

Funeral games were common in Greek and Roman antiquity. Some scholars believe that the ritual may have been a type of combat trial, in which the man responsible for the death of the deceased could be punished. In this way, the games would have been seen to appease the anger of the one who had died.4 Certainly the games were a way to honor the dead. But other scholars note that funeral games were a mechanism by which the mourners could process their loss. Historian David Potter writes, “Funeral games are not just about saying farewell to the dead; they may also enable the survivors to reintegrate without the vital presence of the person whose departure they are lamenting.”5 Through funeral games, the bereaved are able to see that diversion, sport, and laughter continue even after the loved one is gone. They experience their own vigor and energy returning.

The Greco-Roman world was not the only culture in history to embrace revelry after a death. It was customary in many European cultures, particularly those with Celtic roots, to keep a constant vigil over the body from the moment of death until the burial. The deceased was never to be left alone. Watchers would sit up all night, and sometimes multiple nights, with the body and comfort the grieving family. In the days before medical doctors or coroners, it was important to keep a close watch to ensure that the person was, in fact, dead. While a watching was a solemn affair, the long tedious hours of keeping vigil required some amusement. Certainly an abundance of food and drink helped toward this end.6

There are records from the fourteenth century that speak of watchers who sought to relieve their boredom by “rousing the ghost.” This activity seems to have consisted of playing practical jokes meant to frighten superstitious family members. It often involved moving the corpse. Some think these games may harken back to the even older tradition of attempting to raise the dead via black magic. These frivolities must have been a common occurrence because the Council of York, held in 1367, issued a statement condemning “those guilty games and follies, and all those perverse customs which transformed a house of tears and prayers into a house of laughing and excess.”7

The Irish are perhaps the most notorious for their custom of holding lively wakes. It is thought that the residents of the Emerald Isle have been amusing themselves at funerals for as long as a millennium. In Ireland, a wake could officially begin after neighbor women had washed the body and covered it in white linen. Next came the keening, the explicit permission to wail demonstratively over the loss of the loved one. The midnight rosary was the cue that the merrymaking could begin.8

Wake games took many forms, and people from all over the community would come to participate. For the family of the departed, the tension of the lead-up to and finalization of death was released. The exhaustion of worry and caretaking gave way to outbursts of silliness and imprudence. Practical jokes were common, such as mixing pepper with tobacco, tying shoelaces together, and stitching old men’s coats to chairs. Neighbor boys would hide under the bed of the corpse and shake it violently, causing quite a scare. Word games, hide-and-seek, and games of dare were enjoyed.

The lost loved one was honored and remembered. Stories from the deceased’s younger days and memories of happier times flowed freely from the lips of the bereaved, fueled by generous portions of alcohol. Actors would mimic the gestures and voice of the dead.9 Laughter and tears mingled together in a cacophony of mirth and sorrow.

Playacting and pantomime were a popular part of the Irish wake. A young man would often serve as the master of ceremonies. This leader, known as a cleasai in Irish, would pretend to be the local priest and take fellow revelers’ “confessions.” Sometimes, a marrying game was played where wives were chosen for men and mock ceremonies were performed. In some cases, wakes would take on a licentious nature, with lewd jokes and sexual exploits pursued in the dark of the night.10

The tradition of wake merriment carried over into southern Appalachia, perhaps due to the large Irish immigrant population in the area. Often, young men were obliged to stay up all night with the body. These young men, in turn, would ask certain young ladies, whom they were interested in, to sit up with them, transforming the whole event into an impromptu date. After midnight, when the old folks went to bed, the girls would fix a meal for the boys, and the whole gang would crowd into the kitchen, playing games, laughing, courting, and making candy into the wee hours of the morning. A few would even sneak off to the hayloft.11

The sexual nature of wake games is fairly scandalous to our modern sensibilities. It may seem misplaced to brazenly pursue romantic and sensual gratification in the presence of a corpse and a wailing keener. What is it about a wake that inspires such spirited flirtation and the shirking off of decorum? Writer and filmmaker Kevin Toolis, who remembers participating in wake games as a teenager in rural Ireland, writes this:

By acting out, playing games around the corpse, the cleasai helped unleash some of our own deepest longings. The coldness of a corpse has its own perverse existential aphrodisiac; nothing so encourages the animal within us, the hunger for sexual consummation, need of the comfort of another warm body, than the death’s present denial. We affirm ourselves in heat and flesh.12

Toolis’s scandalous assessment may feel vulgar, but I understand what he is getting at. Whether it is the fear of death or the existential weight of death’s crushing finality, our response to a corpse can trigger a personal moment of carpe diem. In the tangible presence of mortality, there emerges a sense of urgency to seize the day, to taste and experience everything this wild and beautiful life has to offer us as long as our souls inhabit these physical, feeling bodies. This is the kind of hedonism only death can conjure.

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I used to make up things about my grief. I used to tell myself that my losses weren’t that bad, that I was going to be just fine. I’d say that my grandmother was old and we were prepared for her to die. I’d remind myself that we hadn’t yet picked out a name for our baby, so we weren’t that attached or invested yet. I’d tell myself that my sister and I talked on the phone only once every couple of weeks and saw each other only once every two or three months, so her absence might not be that noticeable. I’d tell myself that I had a beautiful little girl already, so a miscarriage was no big deal.

I needed my life to fit into a category, to feel like things were “all good” and everything was going to be okay. I was scared that all the difficulties I’d experienced meant that my life henceforth was going to be categorically bad.

What is this propensity in us to be so unwilling to admit that something is truly, totally, and spectacularly awful? I’ve come to believe that the best thing you can do in grief is tell yourself the truth. Every bit of it. Death is hard and ugly and unnatural.

But if we tell ourselves the truth about the bad, we must also tell ourselves the truth about the good. No, we will not be miserable forever. In fact, we may experience powerful and profound glimpses of joy even in our darkest days of grief. The cognitive dissonance of this both/and life is as inspiring as it is confounding.

I suppose life would be easier in some ways if we could categorize it simply as either good or bad. But it’s not that simple. The bad things that happen do not lessen the beauty of the good things. And the good things that happen do not negate the pain of the bad things. They both exist side by side. It’s not a competition.

Some of the placating lies I told myself about my grief were just silly. Others, frankly, were obscene. For me, freedom came only when I finally embraced the idea that yes, this is as awful as you can imagine. It’s as bad as you think it is. Then came an and, not a but. The additional, necessary truths that buoyed me up out of the waves of grief were not truths that diminished what had happened, but rather truths that equipped me to navigate my way through the crisis. Truths like this: My sister is gone. And I have good friends I can lean on. Life is so hard right now. And God is here. Our baby’s heart stopped beating. And little Jane just took her first steps. I’m utterly devastated. And I will feel joy again.

I picture it like a boat way out at sea that finds itself caught up in a hurricane. You could lie to yourself and say the winds aren’t so strong, the waves not that high, the danger not so great. Or you could say, “This is a terrible storm… and I have a radio. I have my navigation tools. I have a life preserver.” And, of course, “It is very likely that the sun will someday shine again.”

I can think of no other tradition in the world that more effectively holds the competing truths of life than the Irish wake. Two leading figures at the wake provide permission for us to step fully into the broad spectrum of our humanity. The bean chaointe, who leads in the keening serves as a midwife to our sorrow. The cleasai rouses the crowd to boisterous joy. Permission to be fully human is granted. All in one night, in one house, in one space.

It reminds me of a passage in the Old Testament book of Ezra. The people of God have returned to Jerusalem after a long and painful exile, and they are seeking to rebuild the temple of the Lord. “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:12–13).

The ever-present weight of memory. The hope of what is to come. There is no distinction. It is all woven together. The frightening and beautiful noise of it all resounds across the miles and miles of our years. In this tension, this both/and, we live and move and have our being, all in the presence of a God who also sobs and sings.

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I’m not the only weary, burned-out millennial who has had a revelatory experience stumbling upon the book of Ecclesiastes. When I found it in my early thirties, this set of wisdom writings from the teacher Qoheleth, the sage king, felt like it had been buried in my Bible for years. Perhaps I’d avoided it because of the dismal nature of the introduction: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’” (Eccl. 1:2). This didn’t exactly square with my American evangelical commitment to Christocentric positivity.

Qoheleth’s writings pull no punches when it comes to doubt, disillusionment, and the creeping sense of futility that come with age. These sentiments are near and dear to the heart of any proper millennial. Frankly, this exhaustion of life is a universal human experience, so when I rediscovered this book a few years ago, I had the profound sense of being lost and found, of being seen and affirmed.

Qoheleth reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. There is no silver bullet to eliminate our inadequacies, our dissatisfactions, or our mortality. With wisdom comes much sorrow; with pleasure and wealth comes disappointment; with toil come fatigue and restlessness. We sow seeds, but, very often, we reap thorns and thistles. The ground of our labor is cursed. Those who embrace wisdom and those who pursue folly both face the same fate. We all go to the grave, and the riches we’ve acquired will pass on to another. And who knows whether or not they will squander the fruit of the sweat of our brow. Nothing endures. Everything is chasing after the wind.

But in chapter 2, verse 24, Qoheleth introduces an intriguing solution to the disillusionment: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.” This same sentiment is expressed multiple times through the remainder of the book, in chapter 3, verses 12, 13, and 22; in chapter 5, verses 17 and 18; in chapter 8, verse 15; and in chapter 9, verses 7 through 9. It’s a resounding theme: Enjoy life when you can because our lot is hard. Savor good food and drink, enjoy the affection of your lover, and revel in the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. As Ecclesiastes 8:15 says, “I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”

The thought that I could be accompanied by joy as I walk through the pain and toil of life is deeply hopeful. It is almost as if the antidote to sorrow is savoring. While obviously framed in light of the final “conclusion” of the whole matter, outlined in 12:13 (“Fear God and keep his commandments”), this holy hedonism is commended to us by one of the wisest teachers who ever lived.

When I went to school at a Christian college and majored in Bible and philosophy, I was warned against the salacious worldview of hedonism. Hedonism is a theory of motivation that asserts the intention behind any act is, or should be, pleasure. The Greek word translated as “pleasure” is hedone. It’s important to remember that many of history’s most prominent hedonists, such as Epicurus, advocated not for drunkenness, gluttony, or lechery, but rather for the prudent pursuit of freedom from fear and anxiety.13 Epicurus, like Qoheleth, believed in the importance of virtue and some measure of inhibition. Nevertheless, when most of us think of the concept of hedonism, we picture wild, booze-fueled parties, unrestrained sexual exploits, and a rejection of all moral and social obligations. This lifestyle, we are told, is to be flatly rejected by the committed believer. We are cautioned to avoid anyone who lives by the axiom “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

So what do we do with the hedonistic undertones we find in Ecclesiastes? Some biblical teachers and scholars in recent years have developed the concept of Christian hedonism, in which a person experiences maximum joy and pleasure by basking in the glory of God. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”14

I don’t reject this notion at all. But I also think there is something uniquely Christian about the ability to truly savor all of God’s good gifts. These good gifts include not only His presence and glory but also something as simple as the sweetness of an apple, the beauty of a spring flower, the warmth of an embrace, and the majesty of the mountains. We forget that the maxim “Eat, drink, and be merry” was drawn from the wise words of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 8:15. It is possible to fear God, to keep His commandments, and, as Henry David Thoreau challenges us, to “suck all the marrow of life.”

Jesus, even though He had stepped entirely and wholeheartedly into the pain and suffering of the world, strikes me as the kind of person who sought to savor the good things His Father’s earth had to offer. In the Scriptures, we often find Him at dinner parties, drinking, eating, and talking. We see Him wandering the hills and spending time with friends.

I could be wrong, but I think it gives God great delight when we experience the physical pleasures of this world. After all, wasn’t it David who wrote in Psalm 30:11, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”? Isaiah proclaims to the poor, the brokenhearted, and the bereaved that God has bestowed on them “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isa. 61:3).

No virtue in the world seems as righteous and life-giving as the virtue of thankfulness. That, to me, is at the core of Christian hedonism, the awe-filled recognition of all the marvelous things God has given us. If anything, grief increases our capacity to be thankful. The good things in life taste sweeter when we have tasted the bitterness of death.

This ritual of savoring was something I committed myself to while I was in the throes of grief. I was determined to reclaim my ability to love my life again.

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It has been a powerful experience writing about my deepest sadness even as I have finally had the joy of welcoming two healthy baby girls into the world. The sorrow of grief and the delight of motherhood occurring in jagged synchronicity made it impossible to succinctly categorize the quality of my life as either good or bad. It was good and bad. Of all the labors I have ever undertaken, the labor of giving life and the labor of grieving life have by far been the holiest. To grieve is indeed a labor, a birthing of something new in us. It is travail.

One of my favorite poems is Kahlil Gibran’s “On Joy and Sorrow.” In it, he writes:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.15

I can’t decide if I’ve mastered the art of harboring in my soul two extraordinarily contrasting emotions. Sometimes when I look at my daughters, I feel my heart stretching toward them with an overwhelming love, but then my head puts me in check, that powerful impulse to love instinctively stymied by the deep caution that grief has embedded in me.

But then there are times when I think my love for them is actually more sublime because of all the hurt I’ve experienced. As Jerry Sittser writes, “Loss can diminish us, but it can also expand us.”16 People tend to think of grief as the ultimate deficit maker, that it forever debilitates you from experiencing the goodness of life. This may be true for a time. But in the long haul of the grief journey, your ability to appreciate what is good in the world doesn’t have to be decreased. In fact, I believe it can be increased.

Sittser puts it this way: “The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, despair, and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace, and love.”17 Grief uniquely outfits us to experience the joys of life.

My soul has grown to accommodate both my grief and my love. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes,

To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death, be proud.18

I won’t give death another inch. I won’t dignify it by allowing it to rob me of one more moment of joy, of awe, of gratefulness. I won’t remain numb. If death is proud, then let my joy be prouder, stronger, more tenacious. Let it be inimitable. The ultimate act of resistance is to enjoy life, to savor it with every bit of strength I have left in me, to eat, drink, and be merry. We must feast on life. As Mary Oliver writes: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it… don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”19

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Like the ancient Greeks, I long to honor the memory of the person I’ve lost. And I’ve begun to think that embracing life and living it to the fullest is one of the most important ways I can honor her. I don’t honor her by ignoring the pain. But I also don’t honor her by ignoring the joy forever. My happiness runs parallel to my sadness, and the key is to learn to live with and truly honor both feelings.

In The Odyssey, Homer writes of the person who has endured suffering: “Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.” I’m not sure I agree fully with Homer on this statement. I’m not sure you can ever call true grief a joy. It will always be a grief. It will always be painful. Yes, there are good things that will happen after my sister’s death, perhaps even good things that would not have been possible had she not died. But that does not make her death good. It just doesn’t. Her death will never be anything but truly awful.

I don’t think there’s some grand cosmic scale in which all the good we’ve experienced suddenly outweighs the bad. I don’t think our lives work like a bank account, where catastrophes make withdrawals and blessings make deposits and you sit down at the end of your days hoping that somehow you’ve ended up in the black. Life always outgrows all our tidy metaphors. It is never either in the red or in the black. It’s always both.

But I can say that I do look back on my griefs with a sense of awe. It’s an awe that I wouldn’t categorize as happiness or relief or even redemption. It’s a wonder-filled awe, a breathtaking kind of awe. It’s amazement that we persevered, that God was there, that we rose to that awful occasion, broken though our wings may have been. It’s a deep sense of reverence for the people who showed up in our lives in powerful ways when we needed them. It’s an amazement at the hard-fought resilience that was wrought over time with love and tears and terror. And yes, perhaps it is a joy, in seeing the stubborn persistence of tenderness, and life’s ability to keep handing us beauty even after all feels lost.

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