Archive for May 5th, 2007

I’ve attended two funerals in as many days. Unsurprisingly, I can’t recommend the process to anyone.

One ceremony was Roman Catholic, and one extremely high Anglican. I have no particular preference for either one, having been raised Protestant and married in a Catholic ceremony. However, as an agnostic, one of the ways I made it through the emotionally-difficult services and their attendant teas and burials and family obligations was by observing what I saw around me and comparing what I saw with other services I’ve attended in the last few years.

At the risk of being pilloried by both denominations, here are some stray observations of how the services struck an outsider:

  • If my response is any indication, the best thing you can say to someone at a funeral that you haven’t seen for a while is that they haven’t changed in years. When you are thinking of death, you appreciate someone implying that yours is apparently not due soon. But it’s also somewhat distressing when, no matter how you look on the outside, you’re radically different mentally.
  • The modern language and hymns used by the Catholic church in Canada are both so bland that they strip the rituals of the meaning that they should have. However, that isn’t altogether a bad thing. As my adult niece-in-law said, the blandness help you keep control in public. The most meaningful ritual at the Catholic ceremony was an impromptu one by the funeral director, who dismantled a wreath so that everyone could throw a flower on the coffin. It was a very low-key, moving ritual that had many of us in tears. By contrast, the Anglican church seems to have done a better job than the Catholic of modernizing while keeping some of its tradition. It still uses hymns from the golden age of hymn-writing, such as “Morning is Broken” and “Abide with Me.” And even when it has modernized, it has kept some of the rhetorical devices like parallelism so that the language tends to sound ritualistic. The same is true for many of its prayers.
  • The aestheticism of Anglican traditional hymns helps to create a sense of spirituality in a way that the modern Catholic hymns never can. If you are going to think about religious matters, singing words to Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy puts you in the mood much better than singing mediocre words to a monotonic tune.
  • Both churches try to invoke a sense of community. The Catholic church tries by employing deacons and altar boys and girls. The high Anglican church we were in does so by having memorial plaques and stain glass windows, as well as a labyrinth and homilies that are as much philosophical as religious. None of these efforts seem altogether successful, since they create a sense of trying to hard, and lay participants seem faintly embarrassed at times.
  • In the last few years, Catholic priests have become used to the fact that many of those at ceremonies will be lapsed or non-Catholics. They now explain what each category might want to do at such key points as receiving communion. The Anglicans seem less aware of this need.
  • Despite regularly conducting services, Catholic priests apparently don’t take any training in public speaking. The Anglican ministers, however, do seem aware of the need to project their voice and vary intonation, as well as common tricks of the trade that they share with teachers, such as using parallelism to lend coherrence to their unrehearsed remarks.
  • The Catholic Woman’s League seems much larger and more efficient than their Anglican counterparts. They certainly serve a much more varied collation after a service.
  • Every funeral should have a baby less than two years old – not as a counterpoint to the death being observed (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea) so much as to give relatives who don’t have much in common something to talk about and to help everyone relax afterwards. At that age, a child won’t understand what is happening, so his or her attendance shouldn’t risk any trauma.

I know, I know: these are not the sort of things you are supposed to think about during a religious service. But what else is an agnostic supposed to do when he needs to be polite and respectful in manner for hours at a time? I suspect that both the Catholic priest and the Anglican minister would be upset if I took my laptop.

No doubt, though, I go about these things the wrong way.

Read Full Post »