One of my enduring memories of a first visit to Vienna in 1978, with an American family descended from people who fled the Burgenland back before the first world war, was of visiting cemeteries, both the musicians' section of the Zentralfriedhof and a lesser cemetery where Mozart's grave is to be found. Talk was of an expression I had never learned in high school or college German classes: "schöne Leiche". Although there is much more to the expression, you get the gist of it from this little guide book explanation:
"When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was at its peak people paid heavily to make sure they would be remembered. Their obsession of a "schöne Leiche" (a beautiful corpse), embalmed for the memorial service, prompted them to save money to ensure their send off was as grand as possible."
Actually, I think there was a whole world of connotations behind the wish expressed with the Viennese salutation, "schöne Leiche!", but my interest lies with the almost desperate fixation with putting on a nice funeral. It goes way beyond the usual American funeral home exchange of "he looks good" or "isn't she beautiful?"... It points to the all-pervasive character of what we know from the language of Pope St. John Paul II as the "culture of death", of that clinging to the this-worldly at the expense of everything and everybody. It points to the dark and profoundly pagan of our world Anno Domini 2015, which has not yet been enlightened by Christ, Risen and Glorious, in His victory over sin and death.
The evident references from the "culture of death" refer to abortion and infanticide, to euthanasia, and to contraception, which has cut sexual intercourse loose from its life-bestowing moorings within the stable context of traditional marriage and family life. Beyond that, there is the use of condoms and shields in an attempt to block contagion of the consequences of sharing injection needles and bodily fluids on a promiscuous basis.
People begin to balk when you class most forms of plastic surgery, hormone treatments and late life physical culture as belonging to that same culture of death. What else could it be? We know we can't cheat death and hence keeping up such appearances, when it goes beyond basic health and hygiene to obsession, smacks of "schöne Leiche". I noticed the other day pictures showing up in my adware columns of a rather buff elderly man with a round head, wearing a rather tight pair of jeans. The pictures are the same ones which have been in airline magazines for years. A virtual "schöne Leiche"? Well, perhaps he is. If his funeral has not already taken placed, no doubt he'll want it to be closed casket, with an airline magazine picture near by.
My thoughts keep returning to Cain and his unrepentant worry, under punishment by God for having slain his brother Abel, that in his banishment someone might kill him. Cain wandered off, leaving life and family, for banishment, marked by God and hence assured of a seemingly pointless longevity. Some time back Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church here, the one separated from Moscow, cursed Putin as an offspring of Cain. Lots of others in this part of the world, who fall roughly into the oligarchic class and their retainers, would seem to merit the same condemnation, as they go about killing their brethren, turning their backs on their own, with no seeming other concern than that they be assured their this-worldly prerogatives, the heck with their date with Eternity and the Terrible Judge. When you are "worth" billions, it would seem reasonable you could find at least a billion to bail out the country you helped destroy, no?
Western society is obviously not well; little seems to be done in defense of Cain's victims around the world; it all seems to fall back on the Eternal Judge and His Justice. Then again, I suppose it is worth recalling from Genesis, that there is no word of Adam and Eve intervening to punish Cain for killing his brother Abel; the matter seems to have been left for God. Be that as it may, I still think you and I are called to look the culture of death in the face and rejecting it choose life in Christ, in adherence to the fullness of the Gospel.
Let's leave "schöne Leiche" to the Cains and to empires long since fallen.