Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Monday, March 05, 2007

My Aunt Margaret's Funeral

A couple of weeks ago I attended the funeral for my Aunt Margaret (wife of my father's brother Floyd, known as George). She was 100 years old.

The funeral was here in Madison, where I've lived for 35 years. My Aunt Margaret had also lived here most of her life, except that she left town in 1997 to be closer to her dotter Mary Ann in Inverness, Illinois. She had died there but had been brot back to Madison for burial.

I really never knew her very well growing up and hadn't seen her since my Uncle George was alive. (He died somewhere around 1960.) But I felt I should put in an appearance for the sake of propriety.

I arrived about 15 minutes before the service was due to start. Fortunately, I had a lot of black clothes I could draw on for the occasion, so I looked properly sober, somber, and respectful.

My 3 1st cousins (1 dotter of Margaret and George + 2 dotters of Kenneth -- another of my father's brothers -- who had apparently driven down from the ancestral home town of Cambria, some 35 miles away) seemed pleasantly surprised to see me and gave me nice hugs. As usual, I was at a complete loss for names. (My mother took fiendish delight, when I was a kid, in saying "You remember who this is, don't you?". And of course I never did and probably developed some sort of complex about it.) I thot I was doing well to at least remember how we were related.

I mumbled my way thru the hellos, condolences, and introductions, dropped off my overcoat in the child-care room with the big picture window looking out into the sanctuary, and went to gaze upon the remains of my departed aunt. She looked like a nice lady, not at all as wrinkled as one would expect of someone with a century under her belt. She'd been powdered, and her hands were crossed upon her breast. She wore a plain dress of a pleasant pastel shade and a simple necklace. I didn't remember her at all. I resisted the urge to poke her to make sure she was really dead. I silently chastised myself for insufficient reverence.

By this time, people were filing into pews for the service. I picked Pew #4, completely empty and right behind 3 rows of what appeared to be Aunt Margaret's direct descendants (3 grandchildren, 6 great-grandsons, assorted SOs). After a bit, another lady filed into my pew and nodded to me. I didn't recognize her at all. I think she was just a regular parishioner. I nodded back.

The congregants clustered entirely on the left-hand side of the main aisle, which was the side closest to the church's main entrance. I spent some time gazing around at all the stylized ornamentation and thinking that I should spend my time productively taking mental notes on a common aspect of Western culture that I'm rarely exposed to.

Here's the program they handed out as we approached our seats, with commentary:

= = = = = =

The Funeral Mass +
[Yeah, that plus sign was on the program. I'm not sure why.]
February 13, 2007

Margaret Monika Russell
May 4, 1906 – February 9, 2007

Saint Bernard Church
Reverend Monsignor Mike Hippee, Pastor


Greeting (Please stand)

Sprinkling with Holy Water

Water in nature is a source of life and Jesus used this life giving symbol in the sacrament of baptism. It is through this sacrament that we become children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Water is also a reminder of eternal life. As water is sprinkled on Margaret's coffin, we are reminded of her baptism and eternal life.

Placing of the Pall

The gesture of Mary Ann [Margaret and George's dotter] and Ron [her husband] covering Margaret's coffin with a pall is a reminder of the garment she put on at her baptism when she was clothed with Christ. The pall, which is the same white garment no matter who is being buried, serves as a reminder that the baptized are brothers and sisters, and all of the world's distinctions are put aside at the time of death and burial.

Placing of the Christian Symbols

The gospel proclaims that Jesus must be lifted up so that all who believe may have eternal life in him. It is by the cross that Margaret has been saved from her sins. The cross placed on Margaret's coffin by Mary Ann, is the glorious sign of Margaret's being a Christian.

Gathering Song (Missalette #255 "On Eagle's WIngs")

[The "Missalette" is a pulp paperback magazine, apparently good for 3 months, that tells Catholics what prayers to pray, hymns to sing, devotions to do, saints to venerate, etc. for each and every day of the time period covered. There were at least 100 copies -- showing the effects of several months' wear and tear, since their coverage had started in early December -- available for the audience. For some odd reason, the songs they picked for the service had only lyrics, no music, even tho most of the songs in the book DID have both. I would've thot that funerals would be MORE likely than regular services to pull in non-Catholics who didn't have all this stuff memorized.]

Opening Prayer


Reading 1 (Please sit)

Responsorial Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.")

[The Bible they were using was all in the vernacular, a far cry not only from the Latin much beloved of Catholic conservatives but also from the King James Version of my youth and many Protestant denominations to this day.]

Reading 2

Gospel (Please stand) Monsignor Hippee

Homily (Please sit) Monsignor Hippee

General Intercession (Please stand)


Offertory Procession (Please sit) Margaret's grandchildren
(Missalette #227 "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say")

[Contrary to what I expected from the word "offertory", this did not entail passing the collection plate for donations. Instead it involved carrying a bowl and chalice from a small table near the front of the church up to the altar, followed shortly thereafter by an odd ceremony that I can only characterize as The Admiration of the Tortilla.]

Preparation of the Gifts

Invitation to Prayer (Please stand)

[A lot of upping and downing here, I suppose to keep people from dozing off. And when the audience wasn't doing vertical bobs, the priest kept up a steady pace of hithering and yonning, with occasional stopovers of 30 seconds or so in a chair placed behind and a bit to the right (his left) of the altar. During these stopovers, no word was spoken, and he usually had his eyes closed, tho it really wasn't all that bright.]

Prayer Over the Gifts


Eucharistic Prayer (Please kneel or sit)

[Almost all of the people on the pews in front of me -- Aunt Margaret's descendants and their spouses -- chose the former. I guess this means that she'd succeeded in growing a nice little crop of Catholics. My dad's family, including Uncle George, were of a sort of indifferent generic Protestantism.]

Lord's Prayer (Please stand)

[Why is it that clergy people can't talk in normal voices? Often it's throwing in extra syllables (Jee AY Zuss, the Lord Goddd-uh) or being unduly sing-songy. This guy had the weird habit of drawing out the last syllable of each sentence or of key words (Chriiiiist, depaaaaaarted).]

Prayers Before Communion (Please kneel)

Reception of Communion (Missalette #209 "Hail Mary, Gentle Woman")

[The civilian music director, who conducted the choir from his seat at the organ, when he wasn't running back and forth to fetch or deposit various sacramental artifacts, had a pretty good voice, individually as loud as the 20-person choir combined. His hand signals seemed to imply that the choir had no sense of rhythm and would be hopelessly off the beat if it weren't for his stern but fair guidance. He was obviously the baron of his little domain within this kingdom.]

[At this point, the folx in front of me filed forward to receive communion. After their pews were all emptied, I looked at the woman to my left, raised my eyebrows, and gestured toward the main aisle. She nodded, so I exited into the main aisle long enuf for her to slip past me, then I returned to my seat.]


Invitation to Prayer

Sign of Farewell

Margaret's coffin is incensed. [They mean with smoking weeds, not that the casket was pissed off.] In the psalms and in the book of Revelation, incense represents the prayer of the people rising to God. [This took about 3 minutes, as the guy in the dress walked slowly all around the bier, and resulted in quite the cloud -- mildly pungent, neither as pleasant as home cookin' nor as bad as cigaret smoke -- which was still hanging in the church after the service was over.]

Song of Farewell

Refrain: Come home, come home, for love is waiting there. In the stillness we will hear God's voice: Come home, come home.

May the angels welcome you; may the saints come to your aid. May they lead you into paradise and present your soul to God. Refrain

May Christ Jesus take you home; may you have eternal rest. May you dwell forever in God's peace; may you live in eternal light. Refrain

Prayer of Commendation

[For those of you keeping score at home, we are now up to 7 prayers total in about an hour, without a shred of evidence that any of them have ever had any effect whatsoever.]

Recessional ("Jesus, Remember Me")

[This is where they finally roll the coffin out.]


The burial service will take place at Roselawn Memorial Park Cemetery.

= = = = = =

It was cold outside as they loaded the casket into the hearse. There was snow on the ground, and a brisk breeze was swirling, but no more snow was falling from the appropriately gray, overcast skies. My cousins from 3 generations were milling around, mixing with maybe a dozen parishioners from the congregation to which my Aunt Margaret had devoted 75 years of her life. None of them were speaking very much. I quietly made my way to my car and drove out the opposite end of the parking lot from the driveway where the cortege was pointed.

I hate funerals.

Why do we have them? Well, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, in his recent book Breaking the Spell, speculates thus:

= = = = = =

When somebody we love or even just know well dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it. "I wonder if she'd like ...," "Does she know I'm ...," "Oh, look, this is something she always wanted ...". A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our intentional-stance habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse. We can't just delete the file in our memory banks, and, besides, we wouldn't want to be able to do so. What keeps many habits in place is the pleasure we take from indulging in them. And so we dwell on them, drawn to them like a moth to a candle. We preserve relics and other reminders of the deceased persons, and make images of them, and tell stories about them, to prolong these habits of mind even as they start to fade.

But there is a problem: a corpse is a potent source of disease, and we have evolved a strong compensatory innate disgust mechanism to make us keep our distance. Pulled by longing and pushed back by disgust, we are in turmoil when we confront the corpse of a loved one. Small wonder that this crisis should play so central a role in the birth of religions everywhere. As Boyer (2001, p. 203) stresses, something must be done with a corpse, and it has to be something that satisfies or allays competing innate urges of dictatorial power. What seems to have evolved everywhere, a Good Trick for dealing with a desperate situation, is an elaborate ceremony that removes the dangerous body from the daily environment either by burial or burning combined with the interpretation of the persistent firing of the intentional-stance habits shared by all who knew the deceased as the unseen presence of the agent as a spirit, a sort of virtual person created by the survivors' troubled mind-sets, and almost as vivid and robust as a live person.

= = = = = =

Yeah, well that would all have been well and good if anybody who actually KNEW my Aunt Margaret had had a chance to say something about her, but they left all the talking up to the priest, who gave a eulogy just as generic as the rest of the ceremony.

This was supposed to be a funeral for my Aunt Margaret. But it wasn't about her, it was all about Catholicism. She was just the excuse.

What struck me the most about the whole sad affair was the amount of repetition involved. Religious people are apparently so terribly, terribly insecure that they have to keep hearing the same balderdash over and over and over again to keep them in line and protect them against all the evidence of their senses. It's necessary to keep repeating that the deceased is now with Jesus in Heaven -- and keep hammering away on that theme again and again -- against the off chance that somebody might start to engage in a little independent thot along the lines of "How do you know? For that matter, why do you think that there even IS such a place as Heaven? Has anybody ever seen it? Let alone sent back video clips?".

At least they DID manage to get the body packed away properly before it started to rot.

I am informed by customarily reliable sources that Wisconsin has no law requiring bodies to be interred in cemeteries or with coffins. You can, it is said, just dig a hole in your back yard and drop the remains in there if you wish. This strikes me as an excellent idea. After the docs remove all of my vital organs that could possibly be of help to someone else, that would be a swell place to put what's left of me. (I'd actually prefer to be dropped in a forest somewhere for the critters to snack on a free meal, but I wouldn't want my skeleton to be a source of startlement for future hunters or hikers.)

Anyway, such are my musings on death here at the still lively age of 62.

Have a cheerful day, everyone.

= = = = = =
Even the best of friends cannot attend each other's funeral.
-- Kehlog Albran


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