Ashes

by Donald Schell

My experience as a priest has shown me that people are drawn to their own rituals to express and experience grief.

How do we face death? When someone we love dies, how do we re-create hope and meaningful life? Some feel that rituals of death are burdensome or irrational. A growing minority in our culture leave a will or instructions asking that no one hold a funeral. But good religious rituals of mourning and burial (and other appropriate human customs around death) invite us to feel the power of grief and may help us find a way through it. Mourners need the actions of grieving (like tears) as well as shared gestures of grieving like wearing black to funerals or lighting candles for the dead. What funeral gestures, customs, and rituals will help people feel and then move through the pain of losing someone they loved? Episcopalians haven’t always asked this question.

In 1970, early in the process of liturgical experimentation that led to the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, I was among a few seminarians invited to attend a discussion group of liturgists and hospital chaplains who were discussing the draft pastoral offices. This study group had recruited as facilitator a wry and fiercely acute Jewish psychiatrist who had been a rabbinical student before he went to medical school. In the sessions I attended, the group was looking at the earliest draft of a new Episcopal funeral liturgy. The facilitator started the sessions by quoting the drafters’ directions, which stated that grieving was contrary to mature faith, because Jesus’ resurrection destroyed death’s power. Therefore, Easter texts and Easter hymns would be used for proper Episcopalian funerals.

After the facilitator had read these various texts he closed the book, looked around the circle, and said, “Do you have any idea how many patients these funerals will send my way? I appreciate the business, but I wonder if that’s what you intend to do. Give me whatever theological explanation you want, but I tell you: this burial service repudiates sadness and grief, and that will only brew up cancers, heart attacks, and suicides.”

The drafting committees heard him and other experts like him, so the finished Prayer Book funeral texts do acknowledge grief, loss, sorrow, discouragement, and confusion, and include prayers for patience and for healing. However, the 1979 Prayer Book firmly states: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 507)

These Prayer Book discussions were part of a wider cultural and religious phenomenon. As committees of liturgical specialists were crafting new texts, others within the Episcopal Church began thinking about the rituals of dying and grieving. After Jessica Mitford’s scathing exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, church reformers of various persuasions tried to create or re-create rituals, hoping to reclaim burial and grief from the professionals.

The St. Francis Burial Society, an Episcopal group of civil rights activists, sold blueprints for a “plain pine box” so people could make their own coffins. The plans included specifications for temporary shelves so you could store your wines in it until it was needed for your burial. A pamphlet published by Associated Parishes, a Prayer Book reform group, suggested that mourners offer prayers as they washed the body and prepared it for burial, and encouraged parish communities to transport the coffin from church to burial in a parishioner’s pick-up truck instead of a hired hearse. These ideas seemed startling and new, though some people advocating them recalled their similarity to customs from their grandparents’ time. If 1970s culture didn’t offer us much grieving ritual, we seem to have even less available to us now.

Many Americans die in hospitals, and many Americans have never seen a dead body except on television or in the newspaper. Death is so sanitized or distanced for us that glimpses of nineteenth-century American grieving can only astonish us. Photographers took formal photographs of the dead laid out in bed, as if asleep. People hung those photos on their walls as memorials. Often hair from the dead was woven into macramé designs to encircle the photos. If a mother and child died in childbirth, the portrait might show the two of them lying side by side. Any household that could afford it had a separate room called a parlor, with a door designed to accommodate a coffin, for a wake. What we call today a “living room” marks the twentieth-century effort of architects and builders to strip the parlor of its burial and mourning associations.

While the twentieth-century funeral industry tried to redefine the tasks of mourning so people would let the experts handle death for them, as painlessly as possible, my experience as a priest has shown me that people are drawn to their own rituals to express and experience grief.

When I was working in Idaho in a small town congregation, one of two Episcopal pastors in the whole county, I presided at a funeral at least once a month. Often I buried strangers who were only nominally Episcopalian. As the village parson, I discerned what the supplicant mourners wanted and needed. Observing like an anthropologist, I also saw there were moments when everyone knew and expected what “ought to” happen, and also moments when people were less certain or secure.

One very solid cultural mourning ritual seemed evident to everyone. All traffic on the country roads and highways would stop right in the lane until the funeral procession passed. Usually drivers stopped as soon as they saw the hearse, not waiting for a reminder from the procession’s police escort. I saw tractors on the highway do exactly the same thing. Most men would remove their cowboy hat or baseball cap to “pay respect” until coffin and mourners passed by.

Another ritual that happened with no prompting at all was “covered dish.” After any burial the mourners would return from the graveside to the home of the person who had died, and food would appear. People left the cemetery and detoured to their own kitchens to retrieve hot casseroles and soups and steaming hams or roasts. The grieving family set out a table to accommodate the huge quantities of food the mourners brought with them. Each person adding a contribution to the covered dish array would comment approvingly on how much food had appeared, and a member of the bereaved family would say something about how the person who had died would have enjoyed sharing the spread. Everyone made an effort to eat heartily.

The human need to express grief through ritual, which I had experienced so strongly in rural America, was also strongly evident after the World Trade Center devastation. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, while the work crews were breaking and shoveling out rubble and recovering bodies from the World Trade Center site, pairs of Episcopal volunteer chaplains were on site, on call for counseling and prayer.

These Episcopal priests and deacons describe how quickly police and firefighters developed a funerary ritual around the painful task of delivering found bodies or body parts to the on-site morgue for identification. When the crew found remains, a signal quickly stopped work throughout the site, and the huge noise of earthmovers, shovels, and cutters was stilled. Men stood silently by the equipment, no matter where they were on the mounds or in the deepening pit. Workers placed whatever remains they had found on a stretcher, and draped it with a flag. Then they turned to the chaplain to say a prayer. Stretcher-bearers and chaplain climbed up the ramp out of the crater to stop at its edge again for the chaplain to say a prayer. Two more blocks’ walk alongside the vast hole brought the remains to the morgue for final identification. Only after the chaplain had offered another prayer at the morgue did the site return to work.

Unlike my congregation in Idaho, and certainly unlike the construction workers and the fire and police officers at the World Trade Center site, St. Gregory’s young congregation has experienced relatively few deaths. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, when some San Francisco churches were burying parishioners several times a month, we had only two deaths from our extraordinarily healthy group of gay men. Most of our experience of funerals was burying parishioners’ grandparents or parents.

At St. Gregory’s we have interpreted very broadly the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s instructions that funerals be considered Easter liturgies. Our grieving rituals at St. Gregory’s grew out of our Good Friday service, and that Good Friday service grew, in part, from the Russian Orthodox Good Friday, which in turn has shaped the Orthodox Office (liturgy) for the Burial of the Dead.

I noted in the April 1997 issue of this publication that our Good Friday liturgy speaks in a quieter voice than Easter, but tells the same story: God tenderly and willingly drawing human suffering to heart and so transforming us. Though Good Friday includes the crushing recollection of the suffering that people inflict on one another and invites us into the presence of our deepest grief, in its essence, Good Friday, like Easter, tells of Jesus' loving freedom and the power of God, which is greater than our greatest longings. In both Good Friday and Easter we hope for and glimpse God's gift of resurrection that overcomes suffering, loss, and grief. In both Good Friday and Easter we hope for and glimpse the radiant love that cannot stay sealed in a tomb. Though they speak with different voices, the two services say the same thing to us. Children see these connections immediately, as I learned after Art Harrington’s funeral. Art, a recently retired engineer who had helped us find our way through the process of building our new church, was one of our first active members to die. After his funeral, a child said, “What we did for Art was the same as we do for Jesus on Good Friday.”

St. Gregory’s Good Friday service, including a description of its ritual and copies of all the congregational music, is available on the web at www.saintgregorys.org. Many of the hymns and texts are quite tender, with tones like lullabies. The congregation either addresses itself to Jesus, as in, “You were naked and cold in death,” or speaks in his voice, singing his words in the Passion narrative together, as well as the whole Psalm the Gospel writer puts on his lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For Good Friday and at funeral liturgies, the church hangings and altar cloth are black, and the clergy wear black vestments. And in both liturgies the St. Gregory's congregation lays flowers on the altar, either around an icon of Jesus' burial or around the urn of ashes. On Good Friday and at funerals, the congregation dances to the table, as we do every Sunday. Good Friday also includes solemn prostrations, when choir, clergy, and everyone who can kneels and touches forehead to the floor during the chanting of the Orthodox hymn, “We bow to your sufferings Lord Jesus Christ,” sung three times to a dark Arabic (Syrian Orthodox) tone, until the cantor finally sings, “Now show us your holy resurrection.”

“Eu” and “logos” or “lego,” a “eulogy” is a funeral oration that “speaks well” of the deceased, speaking only the good even if the real person disappears.

There are important differences between Good Friday and a burial, of course. The burial is a pastoral office, and focuses on someone we know who has died. It offers a way to grieve and also a way for the community to give and receive support.

For a burial, the clergy enter carrying the urn of ashes (and often a photo of the person who has died) and place these on the altar with the icon of Mary, Jesus’ mother, embracing him as he is wrapped and prepared for burial. The beginning of the liturgy is very like an ordinary Sunday with hymns, service music, psalm and readings, and the preacher helping us acknowledge sorrow and ask how we hope in God when we are grieving. Then the preacher crafts a careful invitation after the sermon to allow family and friends to remember and tell truthful, personal stories of the one who has died without artificial eulogizing (from “eu” and “logos” or “lego,” a “eulogy” is a funeral oration that “speaks well” of the deceased, speaking only the good even if the real person disappears).

Unlike our Good Friday service, funerals typically include Eucharist. After scripture readings, sermon and sermon sharing, and prayers, we will put the bread and wine on the table with the ashes and icon as we gather for Eucharist. Because the congregation gathers close around the altar table, most people can see or at least have glimpsed both the photo of the person we are mourning and the icon of Christ.

After sharing Eucharist we continue the funeral with our Good Friday burial devotions, the touching and flowering of the urn, photo, and icon, and then we dance our carol. One of my favorite hymns for this is “Jesus, Son of Mary,” number 357 in the 1982 hymnal, particularly the lines, “Often were they wounded in the deadly strife./Heal them great Physician with the gift of life./Every taint of falsehood, frailty and decay,/Good and gracious Savior, cleanse and wash away.”

To dance this as a carol, we sing it slowly to the rhythmic version of the tune from the 1940 hymnal. And then at the end of the Eucharist, rather than Good Friday’s silent procession out the doors to the street, the congregation carries the urn of ashes out the other great doors to the garden courtyard, past the baptistery and to the columbarium, to commit the ashes to their resting place.

Our funeral rituals help people cry, just as the wailing crowd of mourners in Judea cried when Lazarus died. The rituals bring us together physically and literally: we touch the urn that contains the person’s ashes; we touch one another (at the peace and during the carol); and we are touched by our own bodies’ responses of inarticulate feeling. Year by year, with each succeeding funeral or Good Friday or Easter or ordinary Sunday at the same table, the layering of memories and gestures makes room for sorrow, for remembering, in time perhaps for healing, and finally—in that more complete and truthful setting—for joy.

Donald Schell is Rector of St. Gregory’s.

Read other articles by Donald Schell published in God's Friends


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