DSCF8177
My friend in his garden, shortly before his death

Do we need to face the Church (faith, religion) as we face–or refuse to face–Death?

An essay from a few years back:

“Memorial for The Church”

On a recent late summer morning I attended a memorial service for an elderly friend who was a devout Catholic. He was a wonderful man and had a long, interesting life. I was asked by the family to be a pallbearer and even though this meant I would be “in church” (I rarely darken the sacred doorways anymore) and have a minor role in the mass, I was happy to help.

I arrived by the big shiny hearse, met the five other guys, fellow casket-carriers (I’ve never seen a female pallbearer), and was handed the thin white gloves, a flower pinned on my shirt. I assume the gloves are for the “clean” look, for grip (though they are a little slippery) and maybe to keep us pure, at a distance from “the dead.” More on that later.

It was good to hug family members and greet a few colleagues who knew my friend. Then it was time. The bells rang. We were lined up and carefully carried the huge and heavy “death box” (sorry, but why sanitize it? I was told it weighed 400 pounds! My friend was a small guy withered away by sickness and couldn’t have weighed more than 75 pounds at death). Anyway, we were escorted up the stairs and just to the doorway of the sanctuary. We were guided to stop precisely at the threshold, not an inch further. The priest walked up quickly and immediately spoke prayers into a microphone sprinkling holy water to purify the coffin before it could enter well-vacuumed holy ground. Then we walked forward, rolling the casket to the front and were dismissed to sit in the pews.

There was a nice photo of my friend displayed in front (not quite ON the altar but just a little lower) overshadowed of course by a huge bloody crucifix. I kept telling myself, “This is what HE (my friend) would want. . .it’s HIS service.” Deep, tolerant breaths.

A genuinely awful version of “Ave Maria” was sung by a soloist who looked like she was about 70 and wished she was somewhere getting her hair done. Even a staunch Catholic woman told me afterward that the music was very bad. The rendition of the old worn out song by an old worn out person was made worse because the singing came out of a boombox while the lady with her little bonnet hummed and grunted, or whatever it was she was doing that was NOT singing! I’m not making this up but wish I was. This is where my sadness began to take a seat next to me in the cold, hard pew.

This “singer” had hardly hummed the last atrocious note when one of the priests started reading from his scriptbook and the droning began. He seemed bored, as did the older White Robe sitting back, up and away from “them”. . .us. It was all about Jesus and Christ and Death’s quick rush to Resurrection. A few readings. . .we were told to kneel (I did not). . .more words. . .more kneeling. . .more standing. . .more words. You get the picture.

During one leg-stretching moment I looked down on the bench ahead of me. The only thing I saw laying on a pew was an envelope asking for contributions to the “Priest’s Retirement Fund.” I found that disappointing, though strangely appropriate.

Then the older priest explained that my friend was such an excellent Catholic because he arrived each morning for mass before the heavy dark doors were even open. My friend loved the mass, something he had done for nearly a century, from childhood to great age.

The priest made it crystal clear that the mass, faith, the church, daily devotion guaranteed a place in heaven with Christ. “I have no doubt at all,” he said, that my friend was with God right now, the resurrection had already happened, praise God. What I couldn’t quite understand (even as a former minister) was how all this fit; it made little sense.

Here’s how the story seemed to be presented, for Catholic and non-Catholic alike:

1) This man is dead
2) He is not “really” dead but in heaven with God
3) He got this “fast pass” to the beyond by faithful, daily mass attendance
4) His “corrupt” body will be raised, “along with all of us [good Catholic believers],” at the last day
5) We will NEVER die because of what the Man Nailed to the Wall up There did
6) But WHEN we die (?), if we’ve eaten enough wafers (the priests get the blood-wine), if we have consumed boxes and boxes of wafers, we won’t die
7) There is no such thing as death (hint: this is the extreme edge of denial) and it is offensive to faith to question the fact that death is only a portal to God’s Kingdom. And never, ever say it’s just natural, the End, merely returning to the earth.

The speaker also made it quite clear that “a funeral can NEVER be held on Sunday.” I suppose that has to do with Jesus’ resurrecting on The Lord’s Day, or something. It has to be “pure” you know. Apparently a white-gloved God cannot tolerate anything impure, dirty, as earthy as a lifeless body, as death, especially on His special day of the week.

Then, finally, came the best part, sweet relief: The eulogy, the “good words,” given by a friend of the family, summarizing my friend’s life in a wonderful, humorous and meaningful way. THIS seemed to me the heart of it all, the reason why any of us was there.

Somewhere in there we heard a text chiming from someone’s phone. Then, it happened again. People looked around. I noticed the “soloist” slipping behind the piano to get in her purse. Nice touch. Joy of joys she “closed” the service with a truly somnambulating version of. . .can you guess?. . .”Amazing Grace.” I almost prayed for faith enough to call down the sacred Angel of Silence upon her.

Well, this was a MASS, by god, as we all well knew by now, so the priest explained that Catholics and Only Catholics were invited up to receive The Host (I guess that means the Host didn’t consider the rest of us honored Guests?). “Non-Catholics come up, cross your hands over your chest and receive a blessing. Now, everyone come up” (in other words, Everyone). What a gracious invitation. How sensitive to grieving women, men and children. So, no matter what your religion or no religion you were required (sorry, invited) to come forward and humble yourself before someone you may not consider a divine representative, make the sign of the cross and have a blessing “over” you with another sign of the cross “over” your head. Always over, not beside, not with.

I hate to tell you this, but from my pew perspective, as I sat through it considering the twinkle in my friend’s eye, I saw something happen that I almost wish I didn’t see. I don’t think anyone else noticed, and that’s probably a good thing. I glanced over to where the priest was slipping wafers into mouths and I saw him place a wafer on the tongue of one elderly woman. He paused, leaned toward her to hear something she said (or, with a dry piece of cracker on her tongue, “thed”) and he removed the wafer from her tongue, slipping it into his other hand! She stepped away and on to the next one in line.

Hold that image: He took the wafer off her tongue and disposed of it. The Body of God was right there, almost consumed, and the “vicar”–replacement, stand in– for the God of the Universe, took it back. This elderly lady, who loved my friend so much to “endure” one of his beloved masses, was unworthy of the sacred snack of the Savior, the holy crackers of Christ! I’ve probably never witnessed such a graphic image of how the Church executed and continues to execute God. . .day after day, mass after mass.

At this stage (of the stage production) I was just about praying for deliverance but mostly trying my damnedest to remember “this is for my friend; this is what HE would want.” It wasn’t easy.

There was incense and more holy water. No smell of death, and no scent of life, was evident.

And, this is where the sadness of it all really sunk in as I sunk into an unsinkable pew. This was all about Christ, not my friend. This was all about–ok, primarily about–the death and revival of Christ’s body, not so much my friend. To put it even more bluntly, the priests with their dusty drama were staging a Memorial Service for Jesus (a Mass), not for our friend, father, brother and grandfather. Not really. I wonder how obvious that was to others sitting there?

I deeply respected my friend and would never have criticized him or his faith while he was alive, and I’m not now. I know many Catholics (and ex-Catholics. . .throw a stone and you’ll hit one in our culture) and they are not bad people. In fact, some are exemplary human beings (and some of them would privately share many of my observations here). Yet, this experience left me with troubling questions (my constant companions it seems), such as:

How and When did dogma, doctrine, theology, even the Church, replace basic Humanity?
Seriously, where was God, if you believe in such an Actor, in this hour? Where? For the uninitiated it may have appeared the One called God was nailed up there on the wall, bleeding, looking for some help but no one bothered. I’m being dramatic. Am I?

What have we done to Death? Have we beaten Death to death? Really, what are we doing and saying and throwing more words at when it comes to this frightening, mysterious thing we call Death? I’ve touched corpses in hospitals and cold flesh at wakes without white gloves. Why don’t we face it; touch it? Why is it such a scary creature, a beast we don’t dare approach too close? Are we all simply children here; do we, each of us, simply drag out our childish fears and beliefs when we don’t know what else to do, to say?

Please tell me, where was my friend in this whole experience? Was he “watching over” or “looking down” or “up in heaven” or present at all? IF he was “up in heaven” then what in heaven’s name were we doing! It was so sad, I have to tell you, before the service, when I hugged my friend’s young grandson and said we were there to “celebrate your grandfather’s life; he was a good man.” His grandson said, “That’s later, when people come to our home.” Even this young man understood. THIS was a religious, church thing that was expected, that had to be done. LATER, family and friends would have the real celebration of a Life, the real person they knew and loved. I can’t say I’ve ever heard a more finger-on-the-pulse eulogy for the Church, for Religion, for Faith and for God. I’m not sure “eulogy” is the correct term for that.

What that gathering of 50 or 60 had experienced (other than the wonderful eulogy) was a Memorial for the Church. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel the need to go to any more of those memorials.

Postscript: At the graveside the reality set in. There were tears, wailing, honest and palpable grief, grabbing dirt in a fist, throwing it on the descending casket. It was dirty, messy, earthy. We were even instructed to place our nice pure-white pallbearer gloves on the coffin with our flowers. We were allowed to sprinkle some holy water on the box. Sobbing hugs, appreciation for a good life, and we walked away, back to life, back to our distracted days. I paused to smile, looking down in that hillside hole, whispering:

“Here, my friend, you’re planted and watered; back in the earth you loved and walked. Peace, friend. Arrivederci.”

I looked over at the priest. I couldn’t blame him, but he was the only one who stood in the shade on that hot day muttering more words and prayers. To my mind, they were immediately forgotten, irrelevant, buried with the dead.

As I drove slowly away I nodded and waved to one of the Latino workers sitting on the graves in the light of the noonday sun, left to finish the job. Almost smiling, he waved back.

Chris Highland

September 2013

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