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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Wakes, Weddings, And Masses For The Dead–Why Bother With Holy Ceremony In A Secular Age?

Of all the ceremonies he performed, Father Brophy preferred weddings.  Despite his clerical education and firm belief in marriage as a Holy Sacrament, he got teary-eyed every time he pronounced a couple man and wife.  His sermons – or simple homilies as he liked to describe them – had as much poetry as they did moral advice.  The purpose of marriage was to consummate love within God’s grace, and because of that divinity, it could never be broken asunder; but at the same time it was the coming together of two young people, their lives before them, and such happiness in their eyes that he could not get over the innocence and simplicity of young life itself.

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He spoke warmly of love and affection, the place of children not as ordained but hoped for, and the home as a place of refuge.  Although St. Paul warned against marriage – why would any man want to exchange holy celibacy for a live of hectoring and responsibility - Father Brophy never lost his faith.  He looked forward to seeing weddings on his docket, frowned at funerals, and thought baptisms a bother.

Over the years he saw the celebrations that followed his service change from family affairs to parties – celebrations of nothing, really, other than the celebration itself.   Far from their traditional purpose – the bringing together of families, healing old wounds, and strengthening fraying ties – they were little more than long, expensive, predictable affairs with no point.

Over the years as divorces increased Father Brophy never lost his enthusiasm.  Perhaps God would work his ways to preserve and prolong marriages, that the couple would take his divine injunction seriously, and would look at marriage as a sacred contract with Him.  Yet more and more of the marriages he blessed fell by the wayside even though the couples who divorced were eternally condemned.  Neither the sacrament of marriage, nor the rites of the Church, nor the celebrations which followed meant anything to the new generation. 

Estelle Parker, woman in Father Brophy’s parish died suddenly but not unexpectedly , given her age – a well-earned ninety-seven - and while unremarkable in any ways, the grandchildren, well underway in their own lives, careers, and children had to at least acknowledge the passing of their grandmother.  The old woman, a devout Catholic for her entire life, had eschewed Church teaching and despite Father Brophy’s urging decided give her remains to science.  More and more parishioners never bothered with the sacrament of Extreme Unction, let alone a funereal mass and burial in sacred ground.  What he had always thought of as a holy round of becoming – birth, baptism, marriage, and death – was now becoming quite secular and unremarkable. 

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The surviving children, always dutiful and loving, spent little time on prayer or on a reflection of their mother’s departed soul, but instead turned to managing the sequelae of her death – the burrowing  through Grandma’s hoardings ( Lucinda’s first ballet recital dress  Luke’s spider costume, and Miriam’s slippers as well as Portuguese crockery, reproductions of sylvan scenes, as well as dehumidifiers and colanders), the arrangement for a memorial, and the resolution of sticky end-of-life tax issues – but all in all, Grandma, for all the love and kindness, was gone, forgotten, and past. 

The absence of religious ceremony was more than simply a sign of the times – secular, busy, reformist, and hasty – it was part of a growing trend to eliminate the irritating moral and spiritual context which prevented easy elision from one stage to another.  A man’s death was simply clearing the decks for others to sail.  He simply became absent.  He ‘passed away’ rather than died.  He was memorialized, but for accomplishments necessarily quickly forgotten.  A belief in eternal life which gave meaning to life but even more meaning to death was gone. 

No sooner are the deceased’s eyes shut and the condo emptied, the bathrooms cleaned, the last bits of crockery given away, than we are forgotten.  Oh, yes, I remember Fanny O’Brien, a lovely lady who played a decent hand of bridge and loved her grandchildren, a photograph of whom is on the Memorial Wall of the retirement complex, noting her demise.  He rarely said prayers for the dead and almost never celebrated Masses for them.  The pews of St. Maurice filled up with those to take their place, paying little attention to the consecration and more to the event itself.  Sunday Mass was the only ceremony that seemed to remain in a life without ceremony.

In many countries the deceased is not so quickly forgotten or filed away.  Images are carved into the tombstone, novenas are said ad infinitum, yearly remembrances are held to assure the relevance of the life ended  Not so in the United States where we are taught to move on.  Leona may have been a wonderful grandmother – always hand-sewn and –stuffed animals for Christmas and birthdays, generous checks at Christmas, and a worldly bit of advice when needed – but her memory faded quickly as those left behind moved on.

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Irish wakes, for example were causes for celebration and happy affairs.  Why mourn poor Paddy who has gone to a better place? Better to celebrate his life, his loves, and his excesses.  Italian funerals were no such vital, living affairs. The loss was inconsolable because individual life mattered.  There would never be another Uncle Harry and better that those left behind remember this prince of a man and strive to be like him.  His picture on gravestones mantelpieces, and highboys was not only a memorial to his life but a lesson to others.

Younger children of a new generation of Irish and Italian immigrants were often kept away from funerals.  Too many tears, too much excess, and too much whiskey and drunkenness; but such protective isolation only served to insulate them.  Death for this new generation, would only and always be a a short, practical, and easily put-to-rest affair.

Of course, this makes absolute sense.  Why should any young American be saddled with a Victorian zeitgiest? Why not move on, move along, and move beyond.  Life is all about present and future, not an embroidered past or certainly not about eternal life.

However, as much as we might dismiss ceremony are are happy to have done with funerals, Masses for the dead, and perpetual novenas, we cannot totally forget the dead; and the popular trend to ascribe a particular relevance and meaning to ancestry has filled a ceremonial void.   There is an inherent value to the lives and lessons of our ancestors, say those endorsing genealogy.   A young man when asked why he was so interested in his father’s family history, replied that he might, having reviewed the life of his aunts, uncles, and more distant relatives, understand why his father was the way he was.  That there would be some clues to his religiosity, alternative life style, failed enterprises, and indifferent regard to a academic success.  A ne-er-do well uncle, a great-grandfather behind bars, a wayward sister might explain his waywardness, his lack of ambition, and his dodgy logic.  Yet the fact remained – and would always remain – that Hubert Père was a hopeless idealist and an unattractive man.  No amount of genealogy could ever repair that sorry history.

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  In these days of social reconfiguration and loss of the moral and spiritual context provided by religion or principled secularism, it is not surprising that families are lionized as the essential missing element in a fractious, divided, and unmoored society.   Weddings, births, and deaths should bring people closer together, anneal old wounds, and rebuild the foundations of a civil society.  As it is, such ceremonies are peremptory, unhappy affairs; obligatory events designed to bring people together but  only opening old wounds.  There is no way that Aunt Felicia could possibly forgive Cousin Bart for the things he said about Marfa Potter; or that Leona Paolillo could ever forget the insults she felt when Larry, second cousin of her brother Ralph, berated her for her nonsensical views on rebirth.  

At the very best, one pines for the loss of a parent or spouse for a while; but then, when the condo has been remanded or the library returned to general use, life goes on as before.  The deceased never really existed, although surprisingly influential.  There were some lessons remembered from Grandmother Louise – ‘Watch your edges’ and ‘ Be careful going around corners’ – but they became part of family lore, never taken seriously, typical of her punctiliousness, and chuckled at.  Some warm middle-of-the-night memories, quirky effects; but all else was put to rest hours after her death.

The younger generation never laments the loss of obsequies of their grandparents’ day – the wailing, howling, and rending of garments; or the year-long periods of grief and abstinence, because they never experienced them.  By the time they were born, such holy ceremonies were only antiquated, irrelevant notions from the past.  Yet, even if they were aware of these ceremonies, they would still want to move on, and prefer not to clutter up their calendars with meaningless obligations.

Father Brophy knew he was presiding over an increasingly indifferent, diffident congregation.  Perhaps the Church itself was responsible, relying so much on ceremony, sacraments, and performance of duty that the essential messages of divinity and eternity were lost entirely.  Perhaps the evangelical churches had the right idea – bringing Jesus closer, a needed friend, a personal savior and dismissing ceremony and cant entirely.

He had stopped in on Estelle Parker the day before she died, found her in good spirits, and looking forward to the visit of her grandchildren.  The following week when he went to visit, he found that her apartment had been emptied, cleaned, and rented.  The Marstons had replaced The Bigbys and no trace of Esther Bigby remained. Since he had not been asked to perform the funeral rites or include her name in his weekly prayers for the dead, he was surprised at her ‘absence’ as he now referred to death.  He said a quiet prayer for her nonetheless and went back to the rectory, more disappointed than usual. Wa

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