My brother, Paul, was still asleep in California when I sent him a text message asking where his daughter was.
In the Midwest, we had awoken to news that there had been shootings near the campus of U.C. Santa Barbara where my niece, his daughter, had studied not too long ago. Rationally, I knew that the odds of her being there were infinitesimally small.
Yet one habit I’ve developed when I hear of some natural or man-made disaster is to go through my mental Rolodex to see who I know that might somehow, and against all odds, be in danger.
I don’t think I’m alone. Anytime a tornado hits the Midwest, we get the same messages from our distant loved ones.
While by most measures we in the United States are far more secure than in other historical epochs — with plagues of disease, war and disaster somewhat controlled if not tamed — each shooting or tornado becomes a little memento mori, a reminder that the fate of all of us is inevitable and unyielding. I sometimes wonder if we fixate on such disasters because we have so few reminders of what does await all of us.
Of course, there is always television. Death is, after sex, the most frequently referenced biological fact on TV. Most news coverage — foreign and domestic — relies primarily on disasters: weather-related incidents, accidents and crazies with guns. The number of murders we see as entertainment on any given night is truly astounding.
What makes all of this TV death so remarkable is that in real life we are doing a better and better job of avoiding the topic. I recently heard a marketer explaining that aged baby boomers do not want to hear a word about it. They want to hear that 70 is the new 30. They want to hear that replacing body parts will make them as good as new. They don’t want to hear the relentless footsteps of the Grim Reaper, although Hollywood assures us that “Heaven is for Real” even if purgatory and hell are not.
News reports suggest that funerals are changing. I’ve noticed that memorial services are increasingly common — usually celebrating the wonderfulness of the person who disappeared — while actual funerals, with actual bodies and actual prayers, are dying out.
Yet death continues regardless.
The same Memorial Day weekend that saw the slaughter in Isla Vista, a good man died quietly in bed at his brother’s house. Lee Nagel was executive director of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, or NCCL. It is most likely an organization you have never heard of, but it was a mainstay for diocesan religious educators across the country.
Lee was himself a catechist and an educator who quietly served during these difficult times. I had just seen him the week before at the NCCL convention, and as I was leaving the exhibit hall I thanked him for a particular act of kindness. Only a few days later I learned that he had died. Too soon gone, he was a faithful servant who labored on behalf of the Lord and his Church.
I do not have St. Francis’ wisdom and have not yet learned to embrace Sister Death. I hate death. I hate the pain it causes. I hate the premature departure. I hate the soundless distance it puts between us and our loved ones. I want to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
And at the same time, death — for those of us who believe — makes all that we do in our allotted time of lasting significance. To avoid the reality of death misplaces our focus. Instead of understanding that we must make the most of the time we have because of what is to come, we turn away from what is to come and miss the real meaning of what is now.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.