Sunday, December 16, 2018

What Is A Funeral?

Ann Althouse links to a story about the funeral of a young man who committed suicide. There is certainly a lot that it odd about the story. Clergy usually do respect the wishes of family in what is said and done in a funeral.  I don't know if Roman Catholic clergy are more likely to paddle their own canoe on such matters. The family apparently tried to interrupt him during his homily they were so upset.  They also asked told son's previous highschool football coach to leave the service, because they felt he had mistreated the boy in a string of insulting incidents over the years.  The coach, stung, commented about it negatively on FB and was fired for it. His comments included the idea that people should blame him because that's how society is now, and no one will look in a mirror.  That seems an insensitive thing to say about parents sho have just lost their son.  On the other hand, the mother is quoted as contradicting him by saying they did not blame him.  Well, yes they did. They may not have blamed him for the suicide - nothing is said of that - but for how he treated their son, and their other sons, the did publicly blame him.

The Archdiocese of Detroit apologised to the family, agreeing that the priest should not have preached as he did and promising he would not preach at funerals anymore. The news story quotes clergy from suicide comfort groups in Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, stressing that how we view suicide has changed, and we are more likely to note that mental illness plays a role in many suicides (the article does not say this is the case in this particular suicide), that situations are complicated, and there is no longer a blanket condemnation and insistence that the person is going to hell. The Catholic catechism does not make such a statement, focusing on the mercy and sovereignty of God in such situations.  I don't know how that was taught in earlier years. There is also the matter of copycat suicide, and not encouraging in any way that other young people do the same.

It is, as I said, odd. I think we tend to defer to the person perceived as closest to the deceased as the most affected person and most deserving of having things his or her way.  When my mother died, we deferred first to the wishes she had left in writing, but in everything else to the wishes of my stepfather. I have a theology which respects marriage as one flesh, and consider the spouse's needs to be highest.  But also, my brother and I mostly didn't want to get into a fight about things when he shuttled us off to the side, rather invisible. Though he was insulting us in a way that would have hurt my mother, our "making a scene" about it would have hurt her more.  Yet notice the primacy we give to what she would have wanted.  It is quite natural, but it does miss the fact that the funeral is for those grieving.

So, all this and I don't know enough to have much opinion about the matter. There is clearly much unsaid. There is a piece that jumped out at me, however.  The family - or at any rate, the parents - wanted this to be "a celebration of his life." That is a phrase we hear a lot now, and I wonder if it does not get us off point a bit.  I think my first experience of it was the funeral of a girl a year behind me in highschool, who I had known from church choir growing up.  She was a wild child, and got drunk, drove fast, and crashed into a barrier when she was fifteen. Another friend was distressed because she didn't have a black dress to wear to the funeral, but her mother reassured her that "Peggy was very full of life," so the white dress was not inappropriate.  That struck me as a wrong note even then. I think attendance matters more than what colors one has available, and in our crew not many girls had lots of dresses.  If white is the best you have, that's acceptable.  Yet black is traditional for a reason, and in the absence of black, gray or other subdued colors were substituted. An essay by Theodore Dalrymple on the decreasing somberness of funerals has stuck with me for over a decade.

A celebration of life is a fine thing.  Yet it is not the only thing. I don't know what early Christian funerals were like.  Were the important affairs at all? I do know that there have been Christian cultures that engaged in paroxysms of public grief. The Congregationalists of the 20th C may have gone in for ultra-subdued remembrance and private grief, but their ancestors of the the 17th could drunkenly throw themselves into graves in anguish. (It was more about the confrontation with death, memento mori, than about remembering the deceased, though.) Yet the faults of that extreme should not send us to the other. A funeral is for grieving. Isn't it?

Something I learned years ago in contemplating one's own funeral is that we are very likely to say "Oh, it doesn't matter!  Just put me in a box and say a few prayers.  I'm not really there." But when we consider how the body of one we love is to be treated we rebel instantly against the idea that it should be handled with anything less than great respect.  Whether the deceased is present there or not, that body was the only house they knew, and all we have of them for the moment.


Texan99 said...

I tell my husband he is free to arrange the funeral exactly as he likes without torturing himself over how it would have looked to me if I'd been there; the funeral will be for him and the other mourners, not for me. I'll be gone. But I also give him information about what I think would most appropriately fit what was important to me, in case that makes the mourners feel better. I detest the "celebration of life" approach unless people are truly celebrating a life, which would make the death and the funeral a fairly unusual one, in my experience. We're mourning, so why can't we say so? If the congregation is full of people with faith so strong that they're genuinely exulting, then fine. That's not most people I've ever met. How can it be a good idea to introduce a note of deliberate falseness and superficiality? Can't we admit we're mourning, even if we also make room in the service for some affectionate and even humorous memories, as well as an appreciation for the fulness of a life that is now over, and an affirmation of joy in the face of pain and loss?

If I'm arranging a funeral and hit a false note with some arrangement that would have been anathema to the deceased, as far as I'm concerned the only harm is to some other mourner who will find mourning more difficult because of the jarring impact. The same goes for clueless family members who are indulged in behavior that discounts other mourners present. I assume that the surviving spouse is likely to be the most overwhelmed mourner there, so if he's blowing it, I'll make all the allowances I can. He may be screwing it up by the numbers, but he may also be half out of his mind with grief and unable to control himself. If the result is all that bad, I can always have another, separate service. People are allowed to arrange as many of those as they like. It really does not matter that much whether the remains are physically present.

Miss Manners is reliable guidance in these matters, as she is in most matters of ritual. Try to do something that accords with traditions that are meaningful to the people around you, try not to make a spectacle of yourself, don't do things that deliberately make others uncomfortable, and just generally show some respect.

I really like the New Orleans tradition of a dirge followed by hot jazz. It's a nice way to acknowledge the many sides of the feelings of the survivors, contradictory, maybe, but not fake.

Texan99 said...

And as for treating the body with respect, it's not that I think the body matters. I really don't care if I'm cremated or delivered to a medical school for training. But mourners are not robots. How the body is handled is important in how they'll be able to get a grip on their grief. These are not empty symbols even if they are fundamentally irrational.

Christopher B said...

I'm not sure how representative I'd consider this story. I don't sense a huge change in funerals over the years, though maybe rural Iowa (my last direct experience being my dad's in 2012) is exceptionally stable. From some of the comments and odd details in the story (life-long parishioners whose teenage son didn't know the priest saying the Mass at all for no explained reason?) this appears to be a perfect storm of language and culture barriers causing miscommunication. I suspect the apparently inexperienced priest didn't understand that the parent's emoting was intended as the basis for a quasi-euology as opposed to greiving. For their part, the parents appear to admit they expected that the fact they didn't discuss the cause of death to translate into no mention of suicide at the funeral, a subtlety I wouldn't be surprised if an older American born priest might not have picked up either.

There was a lot of family drama at my wife's great-aunt's funeral last fall, which included a rather bizzare message and hymn, and a few instances of inappropriate dress. I attribute that to general family dynamics and a JW pastor speaking to a room full of Pentecostals more than anything.

Christopher B said...

On a lighter note, my wife is convinced I will outlive her. I have been instructed that there will be no choir singing at her funeral (old style congregational hymns only) and that there will a tater tot bar with the meal afterwards.

Texan99 said...

We just came back from a holiday meal featuring tater tots. They're the best.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Tater tots are so good when they are good that I get suckered into buying them at the work cafeteria even after they've been sitting under a heat lamp for over an hour. Those are terrible, but I keep hoping and trying, like one of those pigeons hitting the bar hoping for a treat.

I mentioned thoughts for my own funeral at a post a few years ago and the comments went into a discussion of everyone smoking in remembrance, which was fun. I quit shortly after that, but it still might be a good idea, as I did smoke for forty years. A lot of people only knew me that way.

Looking for that post, a search under "funeral" brings up some interesting things over the years, if you have the time. That's sort of the way it is here. You might find more interesting stuff but just putting an odd word in my search bar than you would browsing your usual sites.

Donna B. said...

Every funeral I've had a part in arranging was different because the deceased was different. At my grandmother's, it was certainly a celebration of her life, all 95 years of it. The dozen children she raised and their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren... too many to count. Some 'rules' were broken. Her pallbearers were all female grandchildren, for example.

The most recent set of memorial services I wanted to attend (distance was the problem) were for a couple who were brutally murdered -- shot and then burned inside their car. That the families chose to celebrate their lives was they only way they could mourn. The celebration tempered the anger to a bearable point, but no one pretended they weren't mourning. I don't see where it has to be one or the other. I considered this woman to be my best friend, an 'adopted' daughter, one who was there for me in many dark hours and was a bit surprised to find out she was that person for many, many others. It really is a celebration of her life that so many of her friends have now found her other friends.

My son's and my brother's funerals were so very different. Mostly mourning because they died so young, but not so obviously tragic. It's easier to use the word celebration with an older person, but both are remembrances.

Then there are funerals like my father's. Much drama, a certain person who had to be reminded by law enforcement that she couldn't attend, someone wanting to play a inappropriate video set to Neil Young music at the visitation, plus wanting to play his "Boxcar" during the service. My Dad was an entrepreneur, who did hitch a ride in a few boxcars to get to his first paid job after WWII, and he certainly had goals. Lyrics mean something! And those who wanted to play recordings by Garth Brooks and Vince Gill. I don't know how Dad felt about Vince Gill, but I can't be the only one he told that he just wasn't all that fond of Garth. I also didn't want to sit thru that much recorded music. My Dad asked two of his nephews to do the service and gave them notes about what he wanted said. They ignored them! It was horrible for most of the immediate family, but hopefully not for those attending. To top it off, everything was cut short because of impending flooding. That was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

Dealing with estates and inheritances afterwards taught me some things too. My Dad thought he had it all worked out. He got bad advice. I've tried to learn from that and hopefully have things arranged where my daughters won't have to deal with too much. As for my wishes for my funeral, I've only instructed them to not play "pop" recordings.

My husband's memorial service was solemn and traditional, a military service in a veteran's cemetery. It was comforting and peaceful. Part of that was because it was rigidly designed and ritual. It was a celebration of his service, though solemn. So I'm definitely in favor of comforting ritual, but there were people attending that service dressed in military uniforms, customary black, and the southern dress-up attire of blue jeans and white shirt. The military also excluded all drama surrounding his illness and death and a few family members who wanted to make it all about themselves and how he might have done them 'wrong' 40 years ago.

I think it's that 'celebration' has become synonymous with 'party' is the problem. It used to mean observance with respect and rejoicing, ie, celebrate mass. It certainly doesn't mean 'no mourning'.

Normally, I'd just delete this comment because too long, perhaps boring, TMI, etc... but not today.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Not at all. I was waiting for your comment and expected it to be long, and thoughtful, Donna. Thank you.

Donna B. said...

I sent your post "Jewish Funeral" to my daughters with instructions that they were to read the comments. They didn't "get" it then, so I'll probably have to send it again.

Texan99 said...

Boring! I don't think so. Not only are all your ideas worth pondering, but Donna, your son? Your father? Your husband? That's a lot of loss. I'm so sorry.

I vastly prefer live music, however simple, to anything recorded, same as for weddings. Rituals should be as participatory as possible, not professional performances to applaud passively. People should be weaving something together for each other, not just with the music, but with the procession, the words that are spoken, the reception, bringing food to the reception. Even if the musicians are hired, they interact with the family and the gatherers.

Donna B. said...

I definitely agree that live music is best for all occasions. I'm trying to convince my granddaughter that she should learn and memorize a few pieces to play (piano) when occasions arise. Her little sister isn't helping by telling her "I won't have to do that because no one ever has a drum set in the living room." One of the highlights of my grandmother's funeral was two of her great-grandchildren playing Amazing Grace on violins, their own arrangement that they came up with the day before. She had so many great-grandchildren that it wasn't all that odd that this was the first time these two had met.

That said, my father's service started off with recorded music - Daddy Sang Bass, by Johnny Cash and it was the only recorded music that everyone agreed on. You see, Daddy couldn't sing very well, but if he could have, he'd have been a bass and this was one song that he just couldn't help singing along with. We all had happy memories of him and this song. Also poignant that he would be joining so many of his brothers and sisters in heaven... not for singing so much, but for that big domino game in the sky.