My Catholic grandmother passed away recently and I was chosen to be a pallbearer along with other of her adult grandchildren. I wasn't particularly close to her and knew next to nothing about this side of my family. There were awkward greetings as I struggled to introduce my fiancee to family members whose names I could not quite recall now that I found a desperate need to. I worked out a deal with her after a couple of such greetings. I would play the uncouth and absent minded partner that would continuously forget to introduce her. Then, she would take the initiative in introducing herself as she playfully chastised me for my lack of manners and the two would exchange names, thereby relieving me of the of the embarrassment of forgetting. It worked quite well as we navigated the room of familiar strangers, exchanging smiling "hello's" that quickly turned to awkward seriousness. This seemed imposed by the setting of the funeral home and encouraged by the funeral director's demeanor throughout.

From the funeral home the next day, the casket, corpse, and caravan traveled to a local Catholic church. I was eager to hear the eulogy of my father's mother, hoping to gain some new understanding or insight into her life. The priest began his eulogy, speaking about her in very general terms and mentioning children and spouses who preceded her in death. There were a few mentions of other relatives that cared for her as she withered under cancer's assault. This lasted all of maybe a few minutes and was very somber and subdued, as it was at the Wake. Then the subject of the eulogy shifted not unexpectedly, but rather dramatically.

Jesus Christ. The priest began quoting bible verses and speaking about Jesus; what Jesus did, what Jesus said. Jesus' life became the sole focus of the ceremony for the next half an hour or so. I leaned over and whispered to my fiancee "are we burying my grandmother or are we burying Jesus?" Even when a couple of family members gave a speech at the podium, one was simply a reading from the bible. I was disappointed that a good opportunity to reflect on the recently deceased was supplanted by silly, ambiguous lessons and parables from the bible.

She was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery here in St. Louis. There was a short ceremony where the priest again spoke about Jesus and his life. We were then quickly ushered out to make way for the next funeral and I left wondering what the point of all this was. I had hoped to learn something about my grandmother's life during all of this but I didn't know her any better in death than I did in life. There were no interesting stories told, no anecdotal gems that a family member had sequestered for years, nothing really about her at all.

On the drive home I shared my complaints with my fiancee. At my funeral, I didn't want people shuffling zombie-like about, talking in hushed monotones, offering each other canned phrases of comfort as they occasionally approached my corpse to judge how I appeared in death. Or how well the funeral home did my makeup. Or just to be certain that I was indeed dead. I find it macabre. No. I want a party. I want people to get drunk (responsibly, of course) and scream and shout, cry and laugh, play some music, remember the old times and celebrate my life, not mourn my death. Of course, I will be dead and not likely care what the mood is at my own farewell. So then, I suppose what I really want is to be able to have that atmosphere at all funerals. When my friends and family pass away, I would love to celebrate their life with smiles and laughter and leave the mourning for the days ahead without their presence in my life. I would like to hear those stories that you never knew and never would know without such an open and candid environment.

I think we would be happier mortals to accept death as part of life and not some unjust tragedy that befell an unlucky victim. It almost seems an act, a public display we put on to show that we are being respectful and dutifully sad. I would like to think that we could happily reminisce about a life lived that touched us directly with respect and an appropriate amount of sadness. Also, we could ignore the banal worshiping of a possibly non-existent, Jewish zombie that dominates our rituals currently.

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Tags: Religion, ceremonial burial, death, funerals

Comment by Dave G on May 27, 2009 at 3:45pm
You want something like an Irish wake. So do I. When I die, I want my funeral to be a memory of my life, not morose brooding on my death.
Comment by Doug Reardon on May 27, 2009 at 4:45pm
Here in the deep south, a funeral is always seen by the officiating clergy person as a golden opportunity to proselytize, and that is what the majority of the service is about.
Comment by Reggie on May 27, 2009 at 9:05pm
I did think of an Irish Wake, but I wanted something with less fisticuffs.

And yes, a funeral makes a perfect opportunity to proseltyze. Jesus requires a captive audience and the death angle never hurts the message of eternal life.
Comment by Cara Coleen on May 28, 2009 at 11:08pm
You're so right. People are so scared of death and cling so tightly to religion because they have this idea that death is bad and, in some circles, a manifestation of evil and sin in the world. Without evil and sin, they think we would live forever in the Garden of Eden. Death is something to be feared unless, of course, you're a Christian where you have the "hope" of seeing your loved ones again.

My mom always claims that unbelievers have no "hope", but she couldn't be further from the truth. I really don't want to die, but it's a part of LIFE... and I don't fear what'll happen afterwards. We really should celebrate the fact that we're lucky enough to have lived at all.

I'm like you; I want people to remember me with a smile. Hopefully I'll have touched their life and they can touch someone else's, too.

:)
Comment by Reggie on May 29, 2009 at 10:56am
MMAH - very good thing to keep in mind is the secular organizations that provide these services that we have grown accustomed to as being dominated by religion. I worried for years that I would have to get married in a church before I discovered the Ethical Society.

CaraColeen - Good point that on the religious association of death (as well as many other things) with evil and sin. I keep forgetting that this is a common viewpoint that is at the foundation of many of the beliefs and actions of the religious.

Also I agree wholeheartedly with you regarding "hope". False hope is not anything a rational person could ever want to delude themselves with. And the belief you will spend eternity with loved ones I think detracts from the importance of being with them in THIS life. If we are all eternal beings, then life is nothing to value.
Comment by Krysis on August 23, 2009 at 1:49pm
Ah, i see what you mean by the similarities, yeah thats definitely the environment i want.
Not spending 3 hours listening to jesus, watching people go up to the coffin and mourning while the priest gives inspiration of immortal life to scared shitless mortals affraid to die.

its sad that this is what the ritual has become..
Comment by Reggie on August 23, 2009 at 3:30pm
Amen to that.

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