Cameras focus on two windows, empty save for a faint glow of inner light, in an ancient and otherwise dark facade. Though they do so only out of scavenging habit, the compulsive need to invade and take possession of any painful event, it's a strikingly poetic image. Or so it seems to me after seeing it 17 times.
In many ways, that definitive image from the non-stop coverage of the Pope's death is no different than those now famous aerial shots of O. J. Simpson's white Bronco speeding down the highway: hypnotic filler masquerading as content, sensation mistaken for information. I've avoided almost all the Terri Schiavo news coverage for this reason.
Nonetheless, the spectacle is fascinating. That's why I leave the telescreen on for the passing of a pontiff I don't particularly care for. Granted, anchors relentlessly reminded us that he defeated Communism. But I'm sure that one of them, left alone on some network somewhere with enough dead air, began sputtering about how his holiness travelled back through time to poison Genghis Khan. Anyway, the hat perturbs me.
And I'm not too keen on the Church's using a man's death to put a human face on a misanthropic institution.
I am enamoured of the droves of small, unrealistic old women who say they're praying, keeping faith, just in case. Faith, as always in our society, is the watchword.
But faith in what? In JP leaping from his bed to breakdance? "Satan, I rebuke thee with my mad science!"
"He is allowing his death to happen in a public forum," said one news anchor. "He is teaching us how to die." In bed, of old age, ensconced in silk, with thousands gathered outside his home in worship? Not exactly a lesson everyone can make use of.
Here's a sampling of other people you've never met who've died in the past two weeks. Twenty-seven unnamed slum-dwellers were found massacred in Brazil, and police are the prime suspects. A six-year-old girl named Makayla, from a town near Milwaukee, was killed by a car while crossing a road with her bike. Three Iraqi civilians, targeted by an American sniper in the city of Al-Qaim, were joined by roughly 250 other dead Iraqis in the same time frame.
There's a good chance that up to 21 workers were killed on the job in Ontario alone. In the UN's estimation, 280,000 people simply died of hunger. And conservative estimates tell us that 182 species went extinct - mostly plants, but it seems relevant given all the noise made lately about those in vegetative states.
Killing, or as the military might say, "morbidity by less-than-natural means," is our daily legacy, and the majority of those who come to violent ends usually experienced violent beginnings and middles as well. So why the 17 different camera angles on a brain-dead woman unhooked from a machine or an old man dying of old age?
Minute-to-minute coverage of the actual bulk of our world's tragic losses would be near impossible, and impossible to do politely. Dully smiling through perfunctory retrospectives on the lives and deaths of starving peasants is an obscenity beyond even our media culture - except when it's a mega-famine like Ethiopia's and hence a broadcasting extravaganza.
And we certainly aren't ready to shine the camera's full light on the unedited reality of those dying of want in the shadow (or gunsights) of our consumption. Yet in the midst of so much destruction, some part of each of us - even if it's just a small, subconscious glimmer - must still be awake to the need for mourning. At least that's what I tell myself.
Grieving such global suffering is hard to do. So we pour our pain into lamenting the death of icons. We can't grieve for our dying planet, but we can for the victims of neutral "natural disasters." We focus on the small private tragedy of one family, because that's easier than examining our own daily tragedies of friendships lost, dreams kept quiet and injuries sustained in the name of the wealth we hunt or the loneliness we nurse.
We can't underestimate how uncommon it is to see someone simply take their sweet time dying on TV. People on the box are usually constrained to 48 minutes maximum (96 in the case of a two-parter), and most are introduced, killed, mourned and forgotten in under 10 seconds. By the end of the episode, all is made right again. And no one important dies anyway.
Then it's one last round of adverts telling us we're the important ones and should buy as much as we can - because we really can take it with us.
The cardinals don't help by keeping everyone's eyes fixed on the heavenly prize. So I substitute my own speech for their rote prayer.
"Someday," it begins, "we will all die. Perhaps, one day, you will wake to your last sunrise. You will note how the summers of your life, endless and infinite to you as a child, were so few. You may be able to count on one hand the times you watched the moon set or witnessed a lightning storm on a quiet snowy night or took a chance on a wonderful stranger. And you will suddenly, in a pang of late understanding, find all the words you were never able to say to those lost loves and forgotten friends.
"So go, untie yourself from this spectacle, make sure your regrets are fewer than your moments of wonder, and make sure your fellow beings can do the same. The true test of faith is to put it in each other , and in our fleeting world."
But all we get is a Citytv anchor's glib assertion: "We all die sometime." She doesn't dwell on it. She's probably not allowed to contradict the shampoo commercials.