John Menadue. What does it mean?

Dec 21, 2014

We have all been moved by the outpouring of grief and emotion by the deaths in Martin Place, the school children killed in Peshawar and eight children murdered in Cairns. The flood of floral tributes has been remarkable. We saw it only a few days earlier with the untimely death of Phillip Hughes. There was an even more remarkable outpouring with the death of Princess Di in 1997.

But what does our response mean? How do we interpret these events?

Let me try.

We all have brokenness, loss and grief in our lives that so often we suppress. The recent public tributes are a means to release some of this personal anxiety we all have. In a sense it is almost a public therapy for something we don’t really understand but need to express about our own lives. There is something deep within each us that breaks through,unbidden, to the surface.

We need ceremonies and rituals to help us express our grief. Sometimes those ceremonies and rituals are formal memorial services in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a shrine. But for many an informal ‘memorial service’ with massed flowers shows the same purpose. It is a way of expressing both our grief and our respect. Ceremonies to mark death, like other ceremonies in our life, are very important milestones.

We particularly respond to untimely deaths, particularly of children. They are lives of great or unknown potential that are cut short. These untimely deaths remind us of the fragility of life. Though we try to manage and organise our lives to limit risk and the unknown, the fact remains that there is a fragility and mystery about human life that is beyond our understanding.

Perhaps in such public memorial services we are determined to show that evil will not triumph. We are determined to show that goodness and generosity, despite our shortcomings, is part of each of us and is essential in any decent society.

In these informal declarations of respect and support, we are also asserting that human relationships are more important than economic prosperity and success. In effect we are saying that there is a dimension to our lives that is more important than the material.

Perhaps we are also saying that the human person is precious and valuable. Some would say that it is sacred, that we all have a touch of the divine and when we plumb our humanity we will find the divine.

In our daily lives, dying has become different. In the extended family the death of grandparents and the viewing of the body were common place. Our parents wore mourning clothes. With our nuclear family, much of that has changed. Death is so often transferred to the hospital where doctors and nurses are in charge. We have removed death from the common place. Something is lost.

In the memorial of dying we want to hang on to a place, a cemetery, a war memorial or a road-side cross that can be the focus of grief. That is why we are likely to see a memorial erected in Martin Place and perhaps in Cairns. Like ceremonies, markers are needed in our lives.

The mystery of life and death will always be with us. That is what these floral tributes say to me.

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