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
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.