Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Clergy, Funerals, Death, and Dying.

Over the last fifteen years I've performed numerous weddings/handfastings, led probably a hundred rituals, and have sat on several "religious panels" where I've more than held my own with Jewish Rabbis, Catholic Priests, and both Mainline Protestant and Evangelical Preachers. More quietly I've spoken to newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Australia, I was even quoted in Newsweek Magazine once on Paganism. I've also organized several Pagan groups, picnics, and gatherings. I'm also a pretty good lecturer, and have given lectures on both coasts, in Middle America, and up into Canada. For the most part I know what I'm talking about while I lecture too. In short, for the last fifteen years I've functioned in much of the way traditional clergy in monotheistic religions do.

Nearly everything I've done, I've managed to do well. While I wouldn't say I have a "big booming voice" I know how to project, whether that's in a church performing a wedding* or in a large outdoor circle with a 100 people. With the exception of my long hair, I strive to come across as a fairly ordinary person. There are many in my community who tend to dress only in black or as if they are on their way to the Renaissance Faire. I'm most comfortable in sandals, a hoodie, and cargo shorts. Despite my non-traditional religious leanings, I live with one foot in the mundane world, and I know how to talk to that world.

When performing a "public service" (like a wedding) my ability to walk in both the Pagan World and the Non-Magickal World comes in very handy. With only a few exceptions, the majority of marriage ceremonies I've performed have been "stealth Pagan." Most couples get married in front of a very large group of people, and a great many of those people are not Pagan, especially parents. As a result, couples usually ask me to slip some Pagan language in there, while keeping the ceremony religion neutral. What usually happens is that the Pagans in the audience know that I've inserted something in there that reflects our tradition, but the rest of the audience views the service as agnostic. When the service is over I find that born-again Aunt Matilda is pretty comfortable talking to me. It works for everyone involved.

While I've done numerous things in Pagandom, the one thing I've never done is a memorial or funeral service. I've always known that I'd have to do one eventually, but I thought I had another ten years or so before it would come up. I don't have ten years, as of today I have one week and four days. A good friend of mine out here lost her husband to suicide a few weeks ago and she asked me to perform the service. She has two young boys. I'm not often at a loss for words**, right now I find myself at a loss for words.

My friend's husband was not a religious man, so we'll be keeping "religion" in the ceremony to a bare minimum. There will certainly be moments that reflect Pagan Traditions (she's Pagan, and services are as much, if not more so, for the living than the dead), and I might use scripture from other traditions as well. I'm willing to use anything that might comfort someone in need. Unfortunately, when trying to create a mourning service that bridges traditions, I find myself struggling with a lack of resources.

There are all kinds of Pagan funeral rites out there, but they are explicitly Pagan, and most of them feel like they would require everyone in attendance to show up in ritual robes. As a result, the vast Jason library is failing me right now. There are a multitude of resources on-line for Christian funerals, and many of those have been helpful, but I refuse to journey down the cliche of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

In addition to the struggle of crafting a religious/non-religious service, I'm also dealing with the very sensitive issue of suicide. (An issue made even more sensitive because of two younger children.) It's less difficult to eulogize someone when they've died from circumstances you almost understand. Talking about a fight with cancer, while painful, is at least something the majority of us can comprehend. When we lose a loved one to old age or even a car accident we are able to rationalize that to some degree. When someone takes their own life, leaving behind a loving wife and two sons . . . . . that becomes harder to talk about.

Ninety percent of suicide cases are related to mental illness (and severe depression is a mental illness), and in this particular case I have no doubt that the gentleman in question was suffering from some sort of sickness. Knowing that he wasn't in control of his own actions and that he died from something he was powerless against makes his death a bit more understandable. He was a victim, like a person can be the victim of cancer or a shooting. This man was a victim of his mind rebelling against his best interests. Knowing that he wasn't rational when he took his own life makes acceptance easier, but it doesn't solve the inherent problem of language in this instance. Suicide just isn't easy to talk about, and everything I've read the past week advises against mentioning it when young people are involved (there are several instances of "copy cat" suicides in such circumstances, talking about it can make it seem glamorous).

Without a "religion well" to go to again and again I've been combing the internet and my library for poems and reflections to use in next Saturday's service. Previously, I had assumed that since funerals and memorial services are pretty common, that there would be a plethora of "good poems" out there that might reflect the feelings of the friends and families in times like these. I was wrong. Most funeral poetry either falls along the lines of "go on with your life, I'm gone now" or "I'm still here, but like a whisper in the wind." Neither strikes the right balance, and many of them deal with circumstances unrelated to the ones I find myself dealing with. I have settled on some to use next week, but "settled" is the right word.

(Some of you might be wondering if other people are going to speak at this memorial besides myself, the answer is yes of course, but right now we only have two other individuals. Everything I've read has advised against an "open mic" policy, because of the terrible pain in circumstances like this. People are far more likely to be angry over death instead of grieving, and that's not something you want children to witness.)

While I feel confident in my ability to minister next saturday and lead a credible tribute, I'm reminded of how limited my own dealings with death have been. I have never had a best friend die, or a relative I knew well die "before their time." I did have a friend die once from a drug overdose, and while I adored her and still her cherish her memory, it had been several months since I had seen her last. Her death was painful mostly because she was so very young, not because she was a regular part of my life.

In high school the most popular guy in my class died during the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I was shocked by his passing, but I was also out of town on a church trip when it happened and had no way of getting back home to his funeral. My absence from his funeral and the grief of my classmates made his death seem less real, and it wasn't until several months later that it truly hit me. Because of I didn't attend his funeral, I didn't even visit his grave until right before I left Tennessee, when his loss hit me all over again.

My grandparents both died in their late 70's and early 80's. My grandmother's death was out of the blue, and surprising, but she had lived a good long life, and while I still cry about her passing, and smile at her memory, I know that she did not suffer. My grandfather died after my grandmother, also unexpected, but in some ways it probably came as a relief to him. He had been married to my grandmother for over 50 years, in some ways time stopped for him when she died, and I'm sure he was happy to be reunited with her.

To be truthful the most painful death I've gone through was that of my cat Princess. Her passing was hard because we had spent fourteen years together. I also had to watch her waste away from an aggressive mouth cancer. Much like my grandmother, that cat lived a crazy long life, and she lived most of it in perfect health. For a cat, her's was a pretty good run, but that knowledge did not make it any easier.

I mention those deaths because they are nearly+ all of my limited experience with death. I think this makes me ill-prepared to some degree to deal with it in a ministerial fashion. I can only hope (and pray) that I make the right choices, say the right things, and try to do the best that I can next Saturday. In order to do that I will do what I always do: work hard, study, research, and do my best to live up to the great expectations others have in me.

*Yes, I've done weddings in churches and chapels. I've even done a straight Christian wedding.

** I can only think of a few instances when I've been at a loss for words. Many of them were during relationship troubles and joys with Ari. The only other instance I can think of is after seeing the awesomeness that was "The Dark Knight."

+Nearly, because I had a church counselor I was very fond of die of cancer. I miss you Harry.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done, Jason. A good mix of the conversational and scholarly. I'm sure you'll do fine. I too have never 'done' a memorial service, but I've had death all around me from a very young age.