Friday, February 22, 2008

The Secular Funeral

Having been to many funerals and memorial services in the past two or three years, and having found several of them unsatisfying, it occurs to me that there should be some sort of ritual of mourning for people who are not religious. There ought especially to be some kind of funeral or memorial ritual for those cases in which the deceased himself was not religious.

But what to do? My parents thought they had eliminated unwanted things when they left instructions that at death, no funeral mass should be said over either of them. They arranged for the simplest type of coffins and they bought and paid for their plot years ago. They arranged that there should be no wake and no visitation. But, when death came and something had to be done, all those arrangements still left little problems to be decided on – shall he wear his glasses to meet his maker, what color shall the flowers be, shall there be a military salute, shall there be a banner attached to the flowers and what shall it say – and it left the problem of who shall speak a few words in the chapel before burial. We are not the sort of family in which one of us would be comfortable getting up to describe Dad’s life, in a speech full of eloquence and humor. That seemed to leave responsibility for words of comfort to the one of us who has a religious leader, willing to talk, whose denomination would make his input appropriate: "Say, what about your pastor? Could he speak a few words?"

Certainly he could, and it was very nice of him to agree to it. But this pastor was no better acquainted with the family than any other. And the words he spoke were what would have comforted his parishioners, not my father, nor us. Certainly they were no comfort to my mother. "We know that we shall rise in Jesus, and we know this pain we feel is passing because the pain of Jesus’ death was conquered by his resurrection in love." And so on. About halfway through this sermon, my father would have been looking surreptitiously at his watch, and peering sleepily over his glasses.

A memorial service hosted some months later by the hospice which had taken care of him proved to be not much better, for us. It was held in a Catholic chapel and conducted by two priests. But it was also little more than a country music concert. I counted at least eight songs in an hour and ten minutes, plus a long musical interlude while people in the auditorium filed up to hang symbolic ornaments on a Christmas tree on stage. (This was after, incidentally, an almost-comical moment during which we all extended our right arms in a congregational blessing that looked terribly like the Nazi salute. My father the veteran would have clapped his hand to his forehead in speechless derision.)

I suppose the good people who put these things together must reason that lots of music will render any type of religious service safely ecumenical. After all, not every one in hospice care is Catholic. Nevertheless, the lyrics to these songs could only make one shudder. "Poor sinner, when you find yourself in dust and filth, fly to Jesus," and so on. Just when it seemed there could be no more singing, the very good guitarist began yet another song. Toward the end there was one was about a boy lost in the woods one evening, who was led home by an old man who turned out to be an angel. As soon as she recognized it, a lady behind me breathed to her friend, "Oh God, not this one. It’s country." And tasteless.

And I have been to Jewish memorial services recently in which the lady behind me also breathed discontent with other people’s choices, official choices about what shall comfort us in mourning. On a gorgeous afternoon in May a relative at a woman’s memorial read the "who shall find a more valiant woman" passage from the last chapter of the book of Proverbs. Behind me I heard an elderly female voice whisper, "Now that means nothing to me." And indeed why should it mean anything to a modern woman? It is a litany of praise for ancient types of housework that nobody does anymore, and it ends with "let her own works praise her in the ‘gates’" that modern towns and suburbs do not have. If that lady had spent a lifetime listening to her husband speak the passage to her every Friday, as very traditional Orthodox Jewish men are reputed to do, she might have felt differently about it. So might we all.

Nitpicky, to be sure. Perhaps the modern soul is too flaccid, too deeply secular, to get any comfort from grand old sources. I have been to funerals done in the grand old way – a full Mass, thundering organ, songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art – and I have heard the dead eulogized by a Father who knew him well, who nevertheless explained to everyone how Christlike the dead man had been. And I have wondered how on earth the mourners can listen to this and keep their countenance. The dead man was indeed very very good. He worked hard and loved his family, and loved to be with his friends and watch football on Sundays. But he would not have known or cared a straw about the kind of theology that permits a clergyman to say "Fred taught us about Christ every day of his life" after his death.

Were Fred’s mourners comforted? What comforts mourners? At my local library I happened to come across a CD called Music for Queen Mary. It contains mostly Henry Purcell, and includes three magnificent marches, all played on muffled drums, from the service at the queen of England’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1695. Ten minutes of disciplined drumming, very dignified, surprisingly military. "The Queen’s farewell," each was called. Each was composed by a different man, and Purcell’s plays last. In these drums was everything that the modern funerals and memorials I have been to lately lacked: the emotional acknowledgment that death is farewell, forever. Farewell: as if the dead were wishing us a good journey, as if they had been called away unwillingly. Which they are. The repetitiveness of the drums spoke of loss, better than words could have done. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over, they might have said. And yet they said it with dignity, as if one could also hear – she was a human being, all humans suffer this, and yet all never ends. The drums spoke of group mourning, which is what a funeral is, better than all the guitars and speeches and poetry have done. (Haven’t we all been to services in which somebody in the family stands up, bravely gulping, and recites something of their own which rhymes "joy" with "boy" and "day" with "called away"? Haven’t we all lied through our teeth and told the poet how beautiful it was?) They were relentless, the drums, they were unified and inescapable in their sound. They seemed to pound out the savage awareness, as drums used to call men to war, that yes, this is a disaster, this is the end of a world; don’t be comforted, not yet, rather mourn. Anonymously, like humans.

There may have been some people in Westminster Abbey that day who were not impressed by the drums, and the celebrants at that funeral may have described Her Majesty as Christlike in ways that would not have made sense to her or her friends. Possibly a funeral is, as the hard-bitten hero complains in Winston Graham’s first Poldark novel, "‘indifferent entertainment.’" Or, maybe it is a part of the human condition that nothing really comforts or even expresses anybody’s grief, and everything connected with death rituals is a mummery that just keeps us busy and employs the clergy. Or maybe not. Maybe people three hundred years ago simply had a more religious view of the world (for better and worse), and funerals were therefore very different things then.

In any case I wonder if something cannot be done today to create a funeral for secular people. I have many siblings, secular people all, whom I do not like to think of as being laid to rest amid somebody else’s choices, somebody else’s sentimental, pop-crossover shrieking about the woods and sin and Jesus. I also do not like to think that they will all opt for cremation, which is exactly what my sister said she wanted as we got ready to put up some sort of lacy plastic bell, with my dad’s name on it, on the hospice tree. "Either that, or shoot me out of a cannon," she joked. Cremation seems to be an increasingly popular choice. Is it the modern person’s way of saying, I want a secular funeral? Or, I want nothing?

What would a secular funeral include? I am at a loss. Purcell’s drums? Nice readings from lofty classical sources that are no more meaningful in daily life than the pearl-and-ruby housework of the book of Proverbs? "Life’s but a brief candle"? "I am the beauty of woman, whither do you think to fly from me, senseless fool?" (Thais) "And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mold a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ‘tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain ...." (Antigone). I have been to funerals at which the deceased’s favorite music – secular – was piped in softly through the speaker system, which at least gives a personal touch, but also seems empty and, what else, irreverent. Why listen to what he liked now? Besides, shouldn’t we be listening to something more, you know, religious?

Many people would say that whatever comforts the mourners is what should be, and usually is, done. Religious people would probably say that secular people still turn to religion’s customs after a death because they realize, even only instinctively, that they must have religion’s resources to cope with death’s mystery and tragedy. I think it is more likely that secular people turn to religion after a death because religion still overlays the only professional institutions that still know how to cope with death and have the staff to cope with it, from the handling of the corpse to the hiring of musicians and the bother of setting up a Christmas tree on a stage three months later. I also think that if some other huge milestone in life, like a wedding, left secular people as unsatisfied as funeral customs must do, people would do something about it. Since we are all sad and dumbfounded at a funeral, but happy and prepared at a wedding anyway, we let things go on. And we even have the pre-formatted and exciting choice of elopement, to replace a wedding if need be. In death, there is no such equivalent. Religious ceremonials are the things we put up with, possibly because we sense that they are right, or because it seems that good people feel the comfort in these things, so maybe if we were better people we would feel them too. Even the tackiest songs can make you cry. Perhaps it is good to get that out, and is the best comfort secular people can expect.

If I could conjure up a vision of a secular funeral in my mind’s eye, I would see a group of people who know what to do to mourn as a group. I would hear dignified, familiar readings. I would not hear theological pronouncements that the dead most emphatically did not believe in, in life, and quite possibly had never heard of. I do not think I would hear too many funny speeches. I would like to see some sort of physical gesture, done to express the anger that comes with death. The old custom of a monarch’s officials or guard breaking their staves of office and throwing them into the tomb is a good one. So is the Jewish custom of the mourners helping to cast earth into the grave, and then not visiting it for a year. People do go to the cemetery far too much. Stay away. As the drums will tell you, it’s over. There is no second chance to find the comfort the funeral didn’t give, nor to find him.

And would I hear the drums? Frankly, if I had my choice, yes. But of course one can hardly hire in, on short notice, the sorts of professionals who could play that, and to pipe in the music over a speaker system seems as tacky an idea as anything. Everybody would look at each other uncomfortably. What we want on top of everything else in a funeral is one last expression of the dead person’s being – his tastes, his past, his loves – and of our having been shaped, partly, by him. No wonder ancient, barbarous cultures sacrificed concubines and horses for him, or carved his face in stone. It’s what he would have wanted.

The Biblical Hebrew word for the underworld, the next life, Sheol, is said to come from a root meaning "to ask." As if the underworld is a gaping maw, never satisfied, and never ceasing to ask for more. (One wonders if this reflects some point in remote prehistory when mankind, perhaps just learning how to speak, realized with a slow shock that death would never stop asking for more.) I don't know why secular mourning customs seem so hard to arrange, the right mourning customs, new, perfect, comforting, appropriate, -- but it seems we at least have plenty of time to think about them.

The End

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