Monday, April 04, 2005

And then?

The thing that puzzles me most about the Pope-mourning--and I'm really quite serious about this--is that, if people really believe in an afterlife, etc., they should be rejoicing, because surely a pope--being the Vicar of Christ on Earth and all--would go to heaven, no? And isn't getting to heaven supposed to be the whole point? And there will be another pope, soon enough. So, seriously, why the mourning? I can understand how people in or from Poland would feel a special connection to him, and mourn his death, but as for me personally, this is also the guy who insisted that women had no place in the priesthood or anything like it, and who opposed contraception, even in the face of a world that is bursting at the seams, and opposed the use of condoms, even in places where HIV is killing off vast swaths of the population. If I have to pick a religious leader, I'll take the Dalai Lama and his messages of love and tolerance. But the mourning thing seems cognitively dissonant to me.

When C was a kid, his mom and dad lived upstairs in a two-flat and mom's brother and wife lived downstairs. C's mom was sick a lot, so C and his sister K spent a lot of time with their aunt and uncle. Last summer C's aunt died, after battling brain cancer for about a year or so, and C wanted me to go to the funeral, which I did. C's mom was glad for my company there, too, I think. I'd only met the aunt once, at their 50th anniversary party a couple of years ago, so I didn't really know her, but it was still sad--I know how much she'd meant to C and K and their mother.

It also was fascinating for me, in an anthropological sense. I'd never been to a Catholic funeral before, and, indeed, I don't think I've ever been to a funeral or memorial service where the attendees were assured by the officiant that the dead person was now in heaven, with the possible exception of my paternal grandfather's funeral, which I don't remember. I've lost a number of people in the last ten years or so, but the people whose services I attended were all Jewish, and Jews don't believe in an afterlife--if you've lived a good life, then you will be remembered in word and deed by those whom you touched. Before that was a coworker who was one of the earlier AIDS casualties and who didn't have a church service, and before that was my sister's memorial service, which also didn't have any mentions of an afterlife, given the lack of deities and such in my immediate family's belief systems.

It was difficult, then, to hear the priest going on about how C's aunt was granted life everlasting, that she was still "alive" in heaven, and so on. Obviously I wouldn't have mentioned this to anyone (except C, later), but it was jarring to me, and, if you want to know, was the source of the cognitive dissonance. That is, if you believe the person really is in heaven, then you should be rejoicing, no? I even know someone whose boyfriend belonged to a sect that thought that mourning at a funeral, instead of celebrating, was a sign of lack of faith. But, really, who rejoices that someone one loves has died? It's not what we do, no matter what words we can find to comfort ourselves with. Then again, for all I know, perhaps some people have no doubts at all about an afterlife and their own place in it--but then there should be that lack of sadness again.

What does make sense to me isn't even the ritual, at least not in terms of its content; what makes sense to me is the coming together to acknowledge that something important has happened, that someone we love has left us. My parents did not originally plan on having a memorial service or funeral for my sister, but they changed their minds about that, I think in part because so many of her friends called and wanted to know when it would be. I don't really have words to describe how terrible it was. Afterwards, everyone came back to my parents' house for food--even we atheists maintain some aspects of the forms. And I remember seeing that my father--who still looked completely devastated--also looked lighter, somehow. Not because he believed he'd ever see my sister again, or that they'd be reunited in some heavenly future, but because we had acknowledged something important, even if we had to invent our own ritual to do it. We had gathered together, as a family and a community of people who loved my sister, and said, out loud, she is gone and we miss her and our lives are changed.

Back when I was realizing that monogamy wasn't my thing, I couldn't quite figure out what the point of marriage was. I could understand people making promises to each other--and we're incorporating that aspect of the Quaker service into our wedding--but I didn't really get what other people had to do with it. I wasn't opposed to it, really, I just didn't see the point. But my sister's funeral is the main reason I came to think that there's a place for marriage, too. Both rituals, however conducted, include an important public aspect. At its heart, for me, that's what a wedding is about, and what I hope that C and I can pull off in June: A community of people who love us, and who gather with us as we promise to do our best to take care of each other and honor each other. We could as easily promise each other with no one else around, but we live our lives in communities, among people who love us (and annoy us and so on), and a ceremony that does not acknowledge the community aspects of our promises seems to me to be lacking something.

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