Chloro(Men)cken for COVID-19

Teaching Mencken during a pandemic is downright riveting. Imagine reading these observations while quarantined (with cats or not):

The suicide rate, so I am told by an intellgient mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive? Yet nearly all of us cling to life with desperate devotion, even when the length of it remaining is palpably slight, and filled with agony. Half the time of all medical men is wasted keeping life in human wrecks who have no more intelligible reason for hanging on than a cow has for giving milk.

In part, no doubt, this absurd frenzy has its spring in the human imagination, or, as it is more poetically called, the human reason. Man, having acquired the high faculty of visualizing death, visualizes it as something painful and dreadful. It is, of course, seldom anything of the sort. The proceedings anterior to it are sometimes (though surely not always) painful, but death itself appears to be devoid of sensation, either psychic or physical. The candidate, facing it at last, simply loses his faculties. It is no more to him than it is to a coccus. . . .

[M]en work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life — that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid and permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. (On Suicide, 1926)

He streams.

What about how to dispose of human remains?

One of the crying needs of the time in this incomparable Republic is for a suitable Burial Service for the admittedly damned. I speak as one who has of late attended the funeral orgies of several such gentlemen, each time to my esthetic distress. The first of them, having a great abhorrence of rhetoric in all its branches, left strict orders that not a word was to be said at his obsequies. The result was two extremely chilly and uncomfortable moments: when six of us walked into his house in utter silence and carried out his clay, and when we stood by as it was shoved, in the same crawling silence, into the fire-box of the crematory. The whole business was somehow unnatural and even a shade indecent: it violated one of the most ancient sentiments of homo sapiens to dispatch so charming a fellow in so cavalier a fashion. One felt almost irresistibly impelled to say good-by to him in some manner or other, if only, soldier fashion, by blowing a bugle and rolling a drum. Even the mortician, an eminent star of one of the most self-possessed of professions, looked a bit uneasy. . . .

What is needed, and what I bawl for politely, is a service that is free from the pious but unsupported asseverations that revolt so many of our best minds, and yet remains happily graceful and consoling. It will be very hard, I grant you, to concoct anything as lasciviously beautiful as the dithyrambs in the Book of Common Prayer. Who wrote them originally I don’t know, but whoever did it was a poet. They put the highly improbable into amazingly luscious words, and the palpably not-true into words even more arresting and disarming. It is impossible to listen to them, when they are intoned by a High Church rector of sepulchral gifts, without harboring a sneaking wish that, by some transcendental magic, they could throw off their lowly poetical character and take on the dignity and reliability of prose — in other words, that the departed could be actually imagined as leaping out of the grave on the Last Morn, his split colloids all restored to their pristine complexity, his clothes neatly scoured and pressed, and every molecule of him thrilling with a wild surmise. (Clarion Call to Poets, 1927)

And then there is Mencken’s propensity for thinking outside the box:

What reason is there for believing that a high death-rate in itself, is undesirable? To my knowledge none whatever. The plain fact is that, if it be suitably selective, it is extremely salubrious. Suppose it could be so arranged that it ran to 100% a year among politicians, executive secretaries, drive chairmen, and the homicidally insane? What rational man would object? (Christian Science, 1927)

Happy computer modelling.

Mencken on Life and Death

Yesterday, January 29, 2017, was the sixty-first anniversary of H. L. Mencken’s death. He contemplated mortality frequently and even considered suicide. For the last eight years of his life, after suffering a massive stroke, he lived like a kind of dead man, since he was so incapacitated that he could not do what made him tick for most of his life — read and write. His candor about the meaning of life is still remarkable:

All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating animo acids. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worked so hard for years and years, desperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I was after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleasant to me, and I avoid it as much as possible. Then is it a yearning to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convinced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste.

Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to a vague inner urge for self-expression. But that was probably a shaky theory, for some men who work the hardest have nothing to express. A hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life – that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid or permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eyewink called fame. He founds a family, and spends his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

Imagine what such candor would do to claims of American greatness or critics of presidents who claim to be great. It would take away the pump that inflates so much of American life into a cosmic struggle between justice and injustice. Don’t most hyperventilators on the left at least agree with Mencken that no God exists. Do they continue to walk with Mencken and conclude that without the divine, no meaning is left either to esteem U.S.A. or berate President Trump. It’s all folly. As Mencken also wrote:

The basic fact about human existences is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that is it lacking in sense. . . . The end is always a vanity, and usually a sordid one, without any noble touch of the pathetic. The means remain. In them lies a secret of what is called contentment, i.e., the capacity to postpone suicide for at least another day. (Prejudices, Sixth Series “The Human Mind: On Suicide”)

What Would Jesus Do?

Don’t bake those remains. Bury them.

. . . my postmortem body continues to embody memories of who I am. Let’s say that death has come calling for me. What will my wife and children, my parents and sister, see when they see me? They’ll see the man whom they still love. They will not see a shell, an empty husk. My wife will see the face of the man who stood before her and vowed, “I do.” My children will see the hands that held them on the day they were born, and that wiped away their tears when they hurt themselves. My parents will see a scar on my right wrist that I got when barely out of kindergarten. Much of my biography is inscribed upon my body; it is part of who I am, my story, my personality. It is not peripheral to my personhood. A body is not some thing but some one. As such, I want my family to treat my body not as an object I sloughed off upon leaving this world, but as the continuing, meaningful icon of my identity as son, father, and husband. To treat my body with respect, love, and honor is to treat me with respect, love, and honor, for my body continues to be an essential part of who I am.

If this were the sole reason for us to care what happens to our corpses, it would be sufficient. But for those who hold to a theistic worldview, who believe that God created our bodies, there are many more reasons to care. Jews and Christians alike confess that the Creator makes and shapes our bodies from the moment of conception onward. In the words of Psalm 139, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our very existence is a divine gift; and part of that gift are eyes of a certain color, legs of a certain length, a nose of a certain size—each tiny part of us uniquely fashioned as our own. Our body is a gift while also a continued possession of the Giver. It is not ours to do with as we please.

What we do with these gifts should reflect that they are from God. And what applies when those bodies are alive applies equally when they are not alive. Death does not disown God from our bodies. They continue to be his possession, his gift to us, part of that divine bestowal that marks who we are as created people formed in God’s image and likeness. Thus, even when I’m dead, my corpse matters, because God’s gifts matter. I want my body to be treated not as a piece of meat, or fuel for the fire, but as a blessing from heaven.


Mel Gibson enthralled female movie-viewing audiences with his big blues and his down under twang when he starred in Gallipoli (1981), a film about a pivotal battle during the Great War (we didn’t count them then). Little did I know when I first saw the movie where in the world Gallipoli was – it’s in Turkey – or that I would some day visit it (twice so far).

The Allies decided in 1915 to try to break the stalemate on the Western Front by landing forces on Gallipoli, a peninsula along the Dardanelles of strategic significance, and sending them in from the East (along with Russia’s military). The reason the Australians made a movie about the battle is that Australians and New Zealanders made up the bulk of units to attempt to land at Gallipoli, and it was their first full-fledged service as part of the British Empire’s military (as I understand it).

But thanks to poor planning and Ottoman resourcefulness, the Allies experienced a bitter defeat in one of the most brutal series of battles – 100,000 soldiers died on both sides in eight months of fighting. (One irony is that the British won the rights to name bathrooms in Turkey – rule WC!) It was a pivotal event, not only in the larger war, but also in the history of Turkey and Australia. The war gave Australians, arguably for the first time, a sense of Australian nationalism – hence the movie. And for Turkey, Gallipoli produced a military leader – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – who would become the father of the Turkish Republic. History runs on unintended consequences.

Each year Australian and New Zealand tourists flock back to Turkey to commemorate the dead and participate in ceremonies (April 25) that honor this war. The Turks welcome the Aussies and the Aussies in turn honor the Turks. The reason for the latter has something to do with the exceptional maintenance provided to the military cemeteries that hold the deceased Australian and New Zealand soldiers (some of whom could not be buried until after Armistice). Like many military cemeteries, the neat rows of white grave markers, surrounded by closely cut grass and war monuments of various kinds, are moving in themselves.

But the epitaphs we read yesterday were as touching as they were puzzling. They were curious, partly because the biblical references were small compared to what someone might expect from British colonial culture of the Victorian era. We did see one – had to be a Presbyterian – which spoke of justification by faith and peace with God. Another one invoked the second petition of the Lord’s prayer fittingly. But the one that was the most moving was also the one devoid of religion (an impossibility I know for the neo-Calvinist). It read “my only darling boy.”

Maybe a creative grad student has already done this, but a dissertation on gravestone epitaphs might be a useful way to measure biblical literacy and religious conviction. If the student compared wars, he or she might find ascending or descending rates of religiosity.

Where's Waldo Wednesday: Dead Bodies

Thanks to one of the interlocutors at oldlife, I have been mulling over the meaning of union with Christ in light of the Shorter Catechism’s teaching that the bodies of deceased saints, while resting in their graves (an argument against cremation, mind you), remain united to Christ. It is indeed a mind numbing thought to think that a body, destitute of life and its soul, is still united to Christ when in fact the point of much union teaching concerns the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. In which case, how can a dead body still remain united to Christ when the purpose of union is vitality?

I understand that physical life is different from spiritual life (dualism alert!). And I also understand that the resurrection of the body will manifest the body’s union with Christ. Even so, it is hard to conceive how a body six-feet under is united with Christ when the body’s soul is actually in glory with Christ. I wonder here what the difference between being present with Christ and being united to Christ. Is presence more united to Christ than absence?

Anyhoo, these mysteries sent me searching in Fisher’s Catechism. I’m not sure I can follow the logic and after reading Fisher I do wish we had a better glossary on the different kinds of union. But if readers can help a mind that boggles over mysteries I’d be glad for the assistance.

Here is Fisher on the nature of bodies united to Christ in connection with effectual calling:

Q. 13. To whom are sinners united before union with Christ?

A. To the first Adam, Rom. 5:12.

Q. 14. By what bond are they united to the first Adam?

A. By the bond of the covenant of works, by which Adam, who was the natural root of his posterity, became their moral root also, bearing them as their representative in that covenant, Rom. 5:19.

Q. 15. How is this union dissolved?

A. By being “married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead,” Rom. 7:4.

Q. 16. Is Christ united to us before we become united to him?

A. The union is mutual, but it begins first on his side, 1 John 4:19.

Q. 17. How does it begin first on his side?

A. By unition, which is before union.

Q. 18. What do you understand by unition?

A. It is the Spirit of Christ uniting himself first to us, according to the promise, “I will put my Spirit within you,” Ezek. 36:27.

Q. 19. How does the Spirit of Christ unite himself first to us?

A. By coming into the soul, at the happy moment appointed for the spiritual marriage with Christ, and quickening it, so that it is no more morally dead, but alive, having new spiritual powers put into it, Eph. 2:5 — “Even when we were dead in sins, he hath quickened us.”

Now here is Fisher on dead bodies remaining united to Christ:

Q. 27. What benefits do believers receive from Christ, at death, with respect to their bodies?

A. Their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection, Isa. 57:1, 2; Job 19:26.

Q. 28. How does it appear that the bodies of believers in their graves remain still united to Christ?

A. The union was with the person of believers, of which their bodies are a part; and this union being indissoluble, it must still subsist with their bodies in the grave, as well as with their souls in heaven, Isa. 26:19.

Q. 29. How may believers be assured of this from the union between the two natures in the person of Christ?

A. Because, as at the death of Christ, though his soul was separated from his body, yet neither the one nor the other were separated from his divine person, but remained as firmly united to it as ever; so neither the soul nor body of the believer shall be separated from Christ by their separation from one another at death, but both of them remain indissolubly united to him for ever, Rom. 8:38, 39.

Mind you, this all makes sense, especially the second quotation. But I wonder if Fisher is using union in several senses throughout his discussion. In which case, we really do need a glossary.

How Comforting the Intermediate State?

It is common to hear believers talk about the death of Christians in positive ways. And this is natural since Christians do believe in life after death, and a good life after death does await those who trust in Christ. So we are likely to say about someone who has been suffering physically upon their death that they are now in a better place, free from their misery. Or we say they are better off because they are with the Lord. We will even console ourselves, at least, that the passing of a widow or widower, who had a believing spouse, is in a better place because he or she has been reunited with a wife or husband. I should know, I’ve been using these lines with myself of late having lost both parents (both believers) within the space of a month.

But I have wondered how exactly a soul, that no longer has a body, will recognize another soul. I also sometimes wonder how resurrected bodies will recognize other resurrected bodies. At what vintage do our bodies come back? If an infant dies, is he glorified as an infant? Will that infant grow? If the body of an 80-year old dies, does he come back as a 35-year old? And if you only knew someone when they were 70 plus, and they come back to bodily existence as a young adult, will you actually recognize them in their gloried state? So how much trickier the recognition of other souls, invisible as they are, by other souls, who are also invisible. The mind reels.

In hopes of keeping it real, here is what the Confession of Faith says about “The State of Men After Death” (it means you too, ladies):

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. (32.1)

That would seem to indicate that departed souls will “see” and “recognize” God. But it does raise questions about whether they will “see” the face of Jesus. Beholding is not necessarily seeing. And seeing, as we know it, is impossible without eyes.

Maybe union with Christ is the solution. I know that justification by faith alone won’t resolve this one. My pet doctrine has its limits.