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Tragedy in Florida

Two kinds of freedom collided in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday 12th June 2016. One was the freedom of the gay and lesbian community to publicly express their sexuality and pursue an authentic lifestyle. The other was the freedom of American citizens to buy powerful guns and large amounts of ammunition.

After these two freedoms collided, forty-nine innocent people lay dead and more than fifty were serious injured. Thousands more will be directly affected as friends or relatives of the victims.

It was truly a horror in Florida, but I was struck by two words in coverage by the New York Times: “As families began planning funerals for the victims of Sunday’s rampage...” The two words were “planning funerals”. The horror of violent death and injury struck at random in Orlando, as it has so often down the many centuries of human existence. Peaceful, everyday life was suddenly  smashed and overturned. But we always have a response to the randomness and injustice of misfortune: we can re-assert our humanity in the face of barbarism.

Planning a funeral is part of that re-assertion. Whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them, we don’t regard a dead body as something to be simply got out of sight and out of mind as quickly as possible. No, there is something special in it. Spirit and life may have left it, but it is a reminder of the person who mattered to us. We will treat the body with respect and dignity and give it a decent burial. The gunman wanted to deny his victims dignity, revelling in the death and suffering he was inflicting on people who were simply enjoying themselves on a night out.

But that is proof that he was a seriously disturbed individual, someone who had chosen to step outside the rules of civilized society to gratify his own ego and will. That is why it is so important for his victims to be given proper funerals. He destroyed their lives because he did not value them as people. The funerals will state the opposite: that they were indeed valuable,  that they were precious to their friends and family, that their memories will be cherished in the long years to come.

Some of the families and friends may also find it in their hearts to pray for the dead gunman and to remember him with sorrow and pity. That is the message of the Christian religion. He was obviously a weak man trying to feel strong, but he did not win any true victory. It emerged after his death that he had visited the nightclub several times before. Perhaps he envied the happiness and community he saw there and, in his bitterness at being unable to share it, decided to destroy it and convince himself that it was not so important after all.

If that is what he felt and wished to do, he has failed. Human beings are resilient and tragedy cannot crush them for ever. There has never been any lack of death and suffering in the world, but just as winter is succeeded by spring and summer, so some of those who are mourning today in Florida will one day be able to smile and enjoy themselves again. That is what their departed loved ones would want. Funerals play a vital role in the passage from grieving to some kind of normality: they enable us to write the final page in the story of someone’s life. They bring a sense of closure, restoring pattern and order after what may have been an ugly and seemingly meaningless death.

Those adjectives certainly apply to what happened in Orlando, but planning the funerals of their loved ones will allow the friends and families to feel, at least in a small way, as though they are in control again. The rituals and religious services that follow will be full of meaning and symbolic richness. Life is never certain and it is impossible to know what horror or hardship may be around the corner, but the calmness and dignity of a funeral are proof that chaos and hatred do not have the last word.