Death and Dissatisfaction
Funerals (and most other religious rituals) baffle the shit out of me.
I attended one last Saturday morning, for a friend of a friend — a woman whom I had met a number of times, but couldn’t say I knew well. She had had the misfortune of being diagnosed with liver cancer. Three months, start to finish. It was quite tragic.
I believe in showing support to the living in such circumstances, so I tend to show up to the services if I can … but honestly, what anyone gets out of these rituals is beyond me.
A few thousand years of civilization, and we don’t seem to have moved an inch beyond slaughtering a goat on an altar.
Now, I confess (before I go any further) that I’ve pretty much always had a jaded view of religion, so if you’re deeply offended by the opinions of anyone who doesn’t buy into your exact version of sky fairy, then you might want to leave this page forthwith and go play Candy Crush now. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m unlikely to change your mind.
It’s the last taboo, isn’t it? Never say anything critical about religious beliefs, lest you offend. So no matter how idiotic those beliefs are, no matter how much they fly in the face of logic and science and basic common sense and decency, we should never utter a word in defiance of it, because the believers have delicate sensibilities and don’t want their bubbles burst. Well, fuck that. Sorry. It’s way past time we started to challenge this nonsense. It’s been choking the planet for millenia.
This particular service was of the Catholic persuasion, which is a whole special kind of bizarre. I guess if you’re brought up in that culture, it could potentially … well, not make sense, exactly, but be comfortingly familiar, if you don’t examine it too closely. (Luckily, most organized religions teach not examining it too closely as part of the catechism. Faith means not asking any fucking questions, Emily, dammit.) But to an outsider … well, fuck me, it’s strange.
I’m a certified heathen (given the above paragraphs, that likely isn’t news), so what little exposure I’ve had to Catholic worship practices has been at weddings and funerals, which is perhaps not completely representative. But my instincts suggest that the everyday Sunday services are in large part the same deal, because it’s the sameness of it that people seem to like.
I arrived just as the service was getting started, and ended up sitting in the choir loft as the pews downstairs were pretty much full. So it was me and a half-dozen wizened little octogenarians, who began to sing in wobbly voices as I tiptoed up the stairs. I’m actually a trained soprano, and frankly, they could have used my help, but the hymns were lame and I didn’t know them anyway, so I let their lead vocalist struggle along as best she could. I’m sure gawd gives brownie points for effort.
Scanned around the church below me. (Choir lofts are reasonably good for unrestrained gawking. I’ve sung at a number of my friends’ weddings over the years, and I vastly prefer being up in the choir loft to being downstairs in a strapless lilac taffeta bridesmaid’s gown, its ill-fittingness on display to all and sundry. You can misbehave a little up there, or at least smirk at the more idiotic parts of the ceremony.) I’d been told this little local church had lovely stained glass, but from what I could see they were pretty unimaginative. Ordered from a catalogue. Is there a Catholic Catalogue? You know, where you can order a basic chalice in simulated gold plate, and get a better price if you order three or more? Choose incense replacement cones in six deity-approved scents? Is there a Lee Valley sort of catalogue where the chalice has clever hidden features in it (maybe a nail file and a USB hub for those 15-verse hymns)? And where do the priests and clerics and such order their imitation-gold-thread trim for their robes, and the little sashes that proclaim them holier than thou? Inquiring minds want to know. Oh, look, Sister Eugene Immaculata, the spring House of God catalogue is here. What’s new in resurrection accessories then?
So yeah, okay, it didn’t take long for my mind to start to wander.
About halfway in on this service, the guy in the gold rick-rack trim invited practicing Catholics, and anyone who just enjoyed the hell out of a dry rice cracker, to come up to the altar and eat the body of Christ, starting with the choir, who apparently get to be first in line for their service. I guess I must have been obviously clueless as to the rituals of the Catholic church, because as the choir filed past in front of my pew, one tiny blue-haired lady patted me on the hand, leaned in, and whispered conspiratorially, “Communion time!”. Like she was going downstairs for a chocolate chip cookie or something. I’m guessing it’s the highlight of every funeral for her?
As I watched people line up for their not-a-chocolate-chip-cookie-at-all, I tried to wrap my head around the rituals I’d been observing, and just how little sense they make. The whole service was just a series of repetitive motions that have long since lost their meaning. Well, if they ever had any in the first place. You wipe out the chalice with the ritual cloth, pour in a quantity of whatever liquid passes for wine these days, place the Blessed Square of Cardboard over top (presumably, to dissuade the consecrated flies in the church?), and when you come to that point in the ceremony, you remove the cardboard, hold the cup aloft (so gawd can see it better), and someone rings a little bell three times.
So, say, if the bell only rang twice, would the sky fairy be offended? If you have a brain fart and forget part of the ritual, do you have to start all over again? (There does seem to be infinite potential for do-overs in the Catholic faith.) Is gawd going to turn his virtual back on you if you do it wrong? Stand up when you should be kneeling, sit when you should be standing? Not knowing the secret handshake? And what, exactly, determined that this particular set of actions is what will most appeal to hisself and keep you from getting whacked with a lightning bolt?
Imagine the sheer cacophony of recited prayers and tinkling bells and munching wafers coming from a hundred thousand funerals, happening simultaneously on a Saturday morning on every corner of the planet, all emanating up to heaven to the ears of a waiting deity who (apparently) wants things done Just So. Which souls does he select for the big golden key to eternity out of that noise? And does having a Philistine in the chapel thinking these heretical thoughts, just shoot the whole process of crossing all those T’s and dotting those I’s, in the proverbial divine foot? Nope, sorry, unbeliever in your midst, applying logic and demonstrating a shocking lack of acceptance of stuff that makes no sense. Push the buzzer, open the hatch, you lose.
Seriously, we have evolved not at all. It’s every inch as barbaric and primitive and bizarre as throwing babies down a well 2500 years ago. Or mummifying your cats to go on the journey to the afterlife with you. Appease the gods or you don’t get the imaginary gifts we’ve promised each other that he/she/it/they bestow.
In my teens, I had aspirations of acting in musicals. Tried out for a number of community productions, but while I could certainly belt out a show tune, and I think I was a passable actor, I failed to be the triple-threat because I just couldn’t seem to learn the dance steps in a few minutes like the other hopefuls at the auditions. Worship? I suspect if I were to try, I would pretty much always be doing it wrong.
And the worst of this service was, there was almost nothing in it about the actual deceased. As I mentioned, this was not a woman I knew particularly well. I would have liked to have heard some stories about her, from those who were closer to her. (Maybe that happened at the reception, which I couldn’t attend.) I would have liked to have known more about her — because now that she’s dead, the memories of who she was and what she did with her life, are the only things keeping her from evaporating completely. We all like to think we have some small impact on the earth in the cosmic blip of time we’re here, but apart from passed-down stories and perhaps a headstone that lasts, at most, 100 years in Canadian weather, let’s face it: we are inconsequential and our names will not resonate for more than a generation or two.
We funeral-goers got the ritual song and dance (and really, you have to wonder about the level of job satisfaction for the priest), but there was no substance at all. Nothing whatsoever about this woman’s words or deeds or accomplishments. Just platitudes about her being our “sister” and being welcomed into the gates of heaven because some 60 years ago, someone had dripped water on her then-tiny forehead. A prerequisite. Her passport was valid, evidently. But if I’d been her husband, sitting there in the front row, I would have found the whole deal intensely unsatisfying.
As much as it befuddles me that any all-powerful being would need a bunch of barely-sentient critters on its planet to constantly grovel and praise it/him/her/ohfuckwhatever … or what, exactly, the enduring appeal is of being told you are filthy and sinful and not worthy and that you need to remove yourself from all pleasure and fun and live your life according to a litany of arcane (and cherry-picked) rules corrupted down through the ages … this stuff clearly does provide some comfort for some people. Admittedly, the ones coming to the front of the church for communion looked to be newly returned from their snowbird condos in Sarasota, as indicated by their tans and their cruise-wear, so perhaps they’ll soon be extinct and we will finally reach a planetary age where we can begin to leave this nonsense behind. (Can you imagine living in the Middle Ages and having every single fricking thought and action dictated to you by the Church? I’d have gone postal and taken out a cooperage or a pigsty or something.)
Because the sheer cognitive disconnect you need to employ just to buy into any of it? To never, ever have a moment where your brain says, “Um, now wait a minute, that doesn’t really sound quite right to me …”?
Must be utterly exhausting. And it really can’t be anything but destructive to go through life that fundamentally (sorry) deluded as to reality. Witness the current US Republican race. Ugh.
Suppose I really can’t finish this off without the obligatory Life of Brian sequence, can I.