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Friday, December 28, 2012

In memoriam

I occasionally preside at military funerals and they always bring about mixed emotions.

On the one hand, all that rigid precision of movements kinda creeps me out - I mean, from the "half time" step march, to the "present arms' and the snap of rifles, to the unfolding and folding of the flag, and including the scripted words said to the bereaved as the precisely folded flag is handed to them - the ritual never changes. Not even an iota.

In some ways, the boys in the military are more 'catholic' than the boys in Rome.

On the other hand, I'm glad that our government and the various veterans organizations have made provisions to recognize and honor the sacrifice of the former soldier who served in one of the branches of the military.

Part of my ambivalence comes, in part, because it's easier to show up at a funeral than to provide adequate care for veterans. Especially those whose scars are not visible. Those with PTSD who 'self-medicate' at the bar of AMVETs or VFW halls that seem to proliferate in rural areas where I live (there are three of these places within a 10 mile radius of my home - 2 within less than 5 miles). Or, those who move on to stronger drugs and alienate their families, or can't keep a steady job or keep a roof over their heads or, as in one case in NYC, shoes on their feet.

I sure wish the government would show up for them. You know. While they're alive. And, need stuff. Like health care and mental health care and social services.

I'm probably most ambivalent about the 21-Gun Salute.  I mean, I'm not that dense. I get it. Veterans are about wars and wars are about guns.

There's just something kinda creepy about an honor guard made up mostly of old, retired soldiers who half-step march their way outside and fire off their pop guns. I was especially surprised when the leader of the honor guard gathered up the spent shells and presented them to the family.

Right. Just what I want to take home from my loved one's funeral: bullet casings.

To each his own, I suppose.

There are two things, however, that are always deeply moving to me. The first is the folding of the flag. The flag often drapes the casket and then is folded. If there is no casket - if the body has been cremated and there's an urn - the soldiers unfold the flag, snap it out to its full length, and then refolded precisely 13 times.

I always thought it was symbolic of the 13 original states in America but, turns out, each fold has its own meaning. One of the men from the honor guard was able to rattle them off for me, in proper order. He also told me that the folded triangle shape serves to remind us of the hats worn by the soldiers who served under General Washington and the seamen who served under Admiral John Paul Jones - the original "defenders of freedom".

And, here I thought it was folded into a triangle so it could fit into those triangle glass cases.

No matter. There is something deeply moving to see a young soldier gently and tenderly hand over the folded flag to the grieving family. I'm not certain why, exactly, but it always makes me tearful.

And then, of course, there's taps. These days, it's hard to find someone who plays the bugle who will come out to the graveside service of an old, retired veteran, so they have it on tape. Or, iPod. It's a recording, anyway, that gets amplified as if the bugle were right in the room.

It's a very haunting melody that finds its way around around one's heart strings and gently tugs until tears appear.

Here's the thing: Presiding at military funerals has emboldened me to be less apologetic about the church's rituals and liturgies. I preside at lots of Christian but non-Episcopalian funerals and I've always been reticent about doing things like blessing the urn or casket with holy water, or saying 'traditional prayers' or sprinkling the casket with dirt and saying, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

I'm not rigid about it, but I have come to understand that those symbols and rituals and liturgies bring great comfort to those who mourn. No, it may not come from their particular tradition, and - don't kid yourself - there are as many of the older generation who are as much a part of the growing demographic of the "Nones" as there are young people.

And yet, people seem to know intuitively what to expect at a funeral or memorial service. They know it as well as they expect a wedding ceremony to begin, "Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of God........".

They might not darken the doors of a church at any other time of the year, but when they step through those doors for a wedding or a funeral, they have a basic sense about what is going to happen and how its going to go and what words are going to be said. The words may not be exactly the same, but the 'shape of the liturgy' stays pretty consistent.

And, they take great comfort in and from it all.

I'm thankful for the military honor guard for helping me remember what I learned so many years ago in seminary but had forgotten: We humans are ritualistic creatures who simultaneously embrace and rebel against the traditions of our human institutions.

Grief can intensify either feeling of embrace or rejection, or it can push us to a sense of ambivalence and lead us to a sense of apathy.

If the church as an institution ceased to exist tomorrow, our need for ritual and tradition and liturgy would go on. We'd just make up new stuff that will probably look and sound a lot like what we've always done.

Because that's just how human beings are set up.

Sometimes, it takes watching a rigid, militaristic ritual to remind you of the baseline, foundational importance which ritual and tradition capture: Memory.

Jesus knew that. That's why he instituted a simple meal -  the common occurrence of a meal and the common elements of that meal - and said, "Do this in remembrance of me."

Bread and wine beat bugles and flags, hands down in my book, but their real power is not in the elements themselves but, rather, in the memory - or memories - they provoke.

One of the greatest balms to sooth the sting of death is memory.

In memoriam.

As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem by the same name:
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.


James said...

For me, the emotion is at the words "On behalf of a grateful nation . . . " I lose it every time.

Erp said...

To be exact each fold for the flag now has a meaning ascribed. It originally did not and one could come up with variations.

BTW some of the wording of the ceremony can seem very out of place at the funeral of an atheist vet. I've been at such a ceremony, the entire family was atheist [and Jewish]. It was the only mention of god at the entire event.

Tara said...

As I was reading the first part of your post, I was thinking the exact thoughts that came in your second part: the church is ritualistic like the military. Before I got to the second part, I was thinking about what's worse: bullet casings or a cross that represents unimaginable prolonged torture.

Then came your thoughts in the second part.

I left religion after the General Convention in Columbus and vowed never to return to anything organized in the name of God... and I haven't. Yet, there remains a yearning to participate in some type of ritual. Currently, I'm looking for that in nature, but I concede that some day I may return to religion.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

James - Yeppa. That's exactly when I lost it. The other thing is that there was silence the whole time and no one squirmed or fussed. We, in the church, rush to fill in with music. We need to get more comfortable with silence.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

ERP - Interesting. Not unlike the church. We make up stuff about what goes on at liturgy. I've heard more variations on the hand washing ritual that is done before Eucharist than I can keep track of. Probably no different than the flag.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tara - I absolutely understand. I don't know why you left, exactly, but if my hunch is correct, we've pretty much resolved all of those issues in Columbus.

That being said, take your time, Tara. Take all the time you need to heal. The church can be brutal - worse than any military wartime maneuver. But, I suspect you have already learned that. At any rate, you're right We all need outlets for the expression of ritual.

Malcolm+ said...

One of the consequences of the decline in formal religious observance has been the loss of known ritual or common ritual. The result is that most knowledge of milestone ritual comes from popular culture - with all the superficiality that entails.

At weddings, the disconnect has given me the narrative of my standard wedding sermon - it isn't "I do," but rather "I will." Popular culture's "I do" is about how I feel right now. The Church's "I will" is about a deliberate act of the will and about the future.

But where it ets really frustrating is at funerals. The popular culture funeral nowadays is Frazier emceeing an open mic / celebrity roast of the departed. People have no idea what the ritual is supposed to be like.

I had one very frustrating funeral. Dad had died some years before and Mom had handled the details. Now with Mom gone, it fell to the eldest daughter to ensure that Mom's funeral was "perfect." Entirely understandable, except that she had no idea what "perfect" was supposed to look like, and didn't trust anyone else - the funeral home staff or me or anyone - to have the same commitment. I really earned my surplice fee in the lead up to that one. Eventually, I had to tell her that she needed to trust us; we knew what we were doing.

We are a ritual species. But in the secular age, we've lost touch with authentic ritual and spend an inordinate amount of time and energy creating superficial substitutes.

Brother David said...

I'm with Erp on this one. I was surprised that the flag folding had significance regarding each fold and went in search for the instructions on the internet. I was even more surprised when I found it and how overly Christian it was. That little voice of skepticism began speaking in my head that this was in no manner anything official from the US government or the US armed forces themselves.

In fact chasing it down sends one on a round robin of circular attributions as to the origins. The truth is that no one seems to be sure where it came from, but one strong hint was the Gold Star Mothers/Families organization.

No disrespect to the US or anyone's personal reverence to that nation's flag, but this ceremony is too over the top for me and except for the most overtly religious family, I would think that using the reading during a funeral flag folding would make a lot of folks uncomfortable.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Malcolm - Thanks for your comment. I love the wedding narrative you use. My favorite is that marriage is not for LIFE - which sounds like a prison sentence - but FOR Life - that which contributes to life and living.

That being said, I agree with you that our secular society has lost touch with authentic rituals but I would disagree that the church - necessarily - has the market on rituals that are authentic. Traditional, yes. Authentic? I'm not so sure if that's the appropriate word to use. Some of the stuff I've seen in churches is pretty bad. I mean, really, really B.A.D.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Br David - I agree with you and Erp. It's interesting the way narratives get created and become "The Truth".

What's really odd to me is that people want "Church and State" at funerals. I've even gotten requests from people who have never set foot on a military base much less served in the armed forces who request a military honor guard.

Why? I ask. Well, they answer, he loved this country and he never missed an opportunity to vote. Yeah, well.....I hear the hunger for ritual and meaning but it has to be authentic for it to carry the weight of importance.

I worry about the church doing the same thing.

Erp said...

My feeling is that in the US certain aspects of the state (the flag in particular) have been made idols (e.g., one _desecrates_ the flag by getting rid of it in an inappropriate way). I wonder how soon before the pledge creeps into funerals?

Rituals are important and humanists such as myself are still in the process of recreating them. After all Christians are still developing rituals after nearly 2000 years.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, the ritual is so rigid, the point of idolization of the flag so clear, that saying the pledge of allegiance would actually have been superfluous.

As I said, we are ritualistic people. If the church ceased to be tomorrow, people would re-create their own rituals that would be surprisingly similar to what we have now.

Malcolm+ said...

Re: the flag. Ironically, the proper way to dispose of a flag that is too worn to be flown any longer is . . . to burn it.

In any event, I agree, Elizabeth, that the Church can do ritual very badly. That said, the ritual's the Church has (however well or badly executed) are rituals that have some grounding and aren't simply created for the occasion. While I've seen exceptions, almost every "made for the occasion" ritual I've ever witnessed has been superficial and contrived with a strong tendency to be over the top.

Authentic ritual - religious or secular - needs to have some history beyond "I saw this at a friend's wedding and thought it would be nice," or "we thought this completely foreign interpolation would make everything more meaningful."

I also agree that the Church isn't the only place of ritual. Civil events have their own ritual, and there too, the pressure to fiddle with the ritual, to make it up on the fly can be intense. (The best example that comes to mind is the series of mob demands about protocols after the death of the former Princess of Wales.)

I've worked in three of the most ritualistically picayune organizations that exist: the Church, the (Royal Canadian) Navy and Government. I was once short listed to be the provincial Chief of Protocol. I do get that protocol and ritual must not become a straightjacket. But I'm also quite convinced that authentic ritual derives by natural evolution from previous precedents.

Kay & Sarah said...

When the last parent dies, it is up to the children to arrange a service. Since my parents were devout Catholic's, I, as a Episcopalian, and child who was an avowed 'christian' was tasked to coordinate with the Deacon to create a meaningful service for the family. I was glad that they had a booklet for funeral services which gave me great resources and latitude in the prayers and scripture.

I took the script and tried to include as many family members in the service as I could. Since I am now married to Kay, I did not take communion, but was able to pull myself together and give my tribute to my Mother in song with my rendition of ' Amazing Grace' singing it in free form and changing keys in the middle.

At the end of the service, as I was leaving the church, I asked the Priest for a blessing instead.

I have never seen a military guard gather the 'brass casing' and present those to the family.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Malcolm - I couldn't agree with you more. Good liturgy/ritual carries a sense of history into the present with great authenticity. You "can't make it up". Well, you can. But, it shows.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kay&Sarah - That was a classy thing to do, my dear. What a blessing you are. I couldn't believe that the member of the honor guard gave the 'bras castings' to the family, but he did it - right before my very eyes.

DeanB said...

About the human need for ritual -- Many Jewish prayers (most familiar, one of the blessings for lighting the Hanukah candles) include a phrase "who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to ..."

I was thinking about that, wondering what it really meant to me if I don't really believe all those rituals are divinely commanded, and concluded that it's an expression of gratitude for having the rituals.