Monday 18th April, 2005

Fr Henry Charles
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Saying the final goodbye

Images of the pope in his coffin, his body fully vested, mitred, and laid out in St Peter’s, blessed with water and incense, borne from one station to the next in a final journey, put me in mind of the generally threadbare state of much of our ritual today surrounding death.

The pope’s funeral is over, and the “novemdiales,” ie, the nine-day period of mourning, have also ended. That ritual was once familiar to us. It was called “nine nights.” But ask your average teenager, for instance, what “nine nights” is and you’d probably get an answer along the lines of: a hip hop group?

The fact is we live increasingly with a sense of ritual absence, or ritual diminution. Even basic survivals have assumed characteristics that do not always represent any measure of ritual advance.

For a lot of people today, for example, a funeral has come to mean “a celebration of the life.” There is much in this new emphasis that’s fitting and just. The lives of our deceased were special gifts to us, often sources of great value for our lives. But celebrations of life today occasion, for the most part, the most unrealistic memorialising one can see or hear anywhere.

One wonders sometimes at the pictures of perfection, the idyllic representations, for instance, of parenting and family-mindedness that comprise the “eulogy.” If there is fault, it is communicated with a wink and a joke. Everyone laughs. In other words, yeah, that was Johnny all right, the old scoundrel.

I am not sure I like much of it, though I maintain a respectful silence. What often comes to mind are words of the Roman poet Lucretius, the most materialistic of poets, memorialising the death of a friend.

“But you,” he wrote, “oblivious to everything in sleep, will stay like that for ever. We, on the other hand, before your blazing pyre weep inconsolably. No day will take that sorrow from our hearts.”

No wink and a nod there. The first and obvious thing about a funeral is that we are confronted with loss and a dead body. Whatever your belief—or absence thereof—in an afterlife, those fundamental facts do not change. As Emily Dickinson wrote: “First—chill—then stupor—then the letting go.” But not in inevitable sequence. The process is a journey “managed” by the rituals surrounding death.

How individuals mired in grief make out now without such help, I often wonder. Coping with loss and grief has always included an important communal dimension. Everybody consoles everybody else.

Funerals are marked today by several important differences from how they were in our (my) living memory. For one thing, and an important difference it is, the body moved from the home to the funeral parlour. The bathing and the dressing of the body, the first stage in preparing the loved one for departure, migrated to the care of strangers.

This is no implied wish to turn back the clock. It’s just that we should realise what we have lost through the transition. I read somewhere recently that the presence of the dead at funerals has become unfashionable to many Americans. What they want instead is “closure.” Thus, at the “celebration of life” the guest list is open to everyone else except the corpse.

The human thing, however, is that in response to death, we go the distance with our dead.

We bear mortality by bearing mortals to the point where they make their final journey alone.

What happened in Rome this month was a ritual performed for popes. At a deeper level, however, it had little to do with role or status. It was a deeply human event, something only human beings do, a feature unique to our species. Birds and dogs don’t bother with things like that, nor, higher up the ladder, do chimpanzees. We do.

Whatever be our final terminus, we deal with death (the idea) by dealing with the dead (the thing itself) in all its frailty by surrounding it with marks of deliberation and respect.

Another common fact of our experience today is the increasing popularity of cremation. Cost, of course, is a big issue. Of somewhat lesser importance are environmental concerns, including the belief that space in cemeteries is in short supply, and urns take up less room than coffins.

But the truth also includes the fact that cremation fits more easily with our lifestyle. Its efficiency and speed resonate with our lack of interest in the traditional paraphernalia of death. Death needs to be out of the way as quickly as possible, because we’ve got to get on with life. Cremation gets us there at the touch of a button.

In the scheme of traditional rituals, on the other hand, time is primarily not for getting on with life, but for allowing the dead to depart, and for survivors to accustom themselves to their absence. Death may be sudden, but the dead always leave slowly.

This is the whole point of the “40 days.” In the economy of religious symbolism, “40” stands for the time it takes for mission, readiness, or purpose to be complete. Biblical illustrations here are too many to need mentioning.

This confusion of linear time, the time of minutes and hours, of getting on with life, and ritual time, time as a suspension of the mundane, is another mark of our poverty.

In other cultures, funeral meals that invoke ancestors strengthen kinship and unity among the living. Here ritual time expands life in linear time, giving it greater depth and significance. It’s a way of understanding poles apart from viewing time essentially as a commodity, something you don’t waste in ritual or other modes of unprofitable distraction.

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