Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Shamanic Moment

One of the simultaneously bitterest and sweetest responsibilities of a priest is to bury the dead. I did that, once again, this morning, and, once again, I was amazed at how capable the Prayer Book liturgy is of "bearing the freight" of that sort of occasion. If allowed to do so, it simply does precisely what needs to be done, and I'm so glad I'm not in an ecclesial tradition where funerals have to be invented from scratch each time.

I was particularly struck this morning by something that has never occurred to me before. It has always been my practice to walk in front of the casket all the way out of the church, not stopping at the door and letting the pallbearers go it alone from there, but leading down to the sidewalk and standing by until the door is closed on the hearse. No one ever told me or taught me to do it. It just seems right intuitively.

This is one of those moments of priest-as-shaman. Please, I'm not trying to incite a cyber-riot by suggesting a parallel between pagan and Christian "priestcraft," but ... well ... there's a parallel between Christian priestcraft in this context and what we might call "generic" priestcraft. When I lead the casket all the way out to the hearse, I am exercising priesthood for the sake of the deceased. I am in that moment no longer a teacher, or an evangelist, or a community leader, or a care-giver, and not simply a presbyter in the technical Christian sense. I am a priest, conducting a soul out of this world and through the portal to what comes next. My responsibility during those few steps is not to the grieving family, or other parishioners and non-parishioners present, but to the deceased, represented by his body. When the door of the hearse shuts, then I stand relieved, and turn my pastoral attention once again to the living. The Communion of Saints waves hello to me. "See you again soon," they say, as indeed they will. And someday I'll be the one that another priest escorts to that point and then hands me off to them. So this is good practice.


Malcolm+ said...

The Pop Culture Princess has some reflections on funeral ritual here:

Our funeral rituals operate at a number of levels: honouring the deceased, comforting the bereaved, proclaiming the resurrection and cetera. I agree that our liturgy effectively balances those various needs which exist at a deeper level than the merely religious.

It is also interesting to me that so many non-religious people (fpor lack of a better term) seem to get it when I speak with them after funerals. It is as though they had the liturgy written on their hearts.

Anonymous said...

Father Dan, like you I have always accompanied the body to the hearse following the liturgy. At the cemetery I also accompany the body from the hearse to the grave. I am not sure where I learned this but it just seems the right thing to do. We are accompanying one on the final steps - the completion - of their baptismal journey in this world. Thank you for an insightful and affirming post. Peace, Mike

Anonymous said...

As I recall isn't leading the corpse from the church gate into the church or to the grave side, whilst saying the sentences, precisely the historic Anglican tradition.

In England the coffin is still commonly shouldered (carried) by mourners into the church, led by the priest and followed by the family.

Quote from 1662 BCP Order for the Burial of the Dead, "The Priest and Clerks meeting the Corpse at the entrance of the Church-yard, and going before it, either into the Church, or towards the Grave, shall say, or sing,"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord..."

What has astonished me since moving to the USA is how frequently I take funerals in which there is no corpse present and how rare, in my part of the USA, burial is.