George, father and father-in-law of our dear friends John and Chuck, passed away after a long illness at the age of 84. His wife Reene died five years earlier. Gregory and I attended his funeral mass in Racine, Wisconsin. The Hnilicka family has been part of our family for three plus decades so it was important and meaningful for us to be at the mass.
Many of the family members participated in the mass and they had selected the various readings and musical pieces that were used during the mass. It lasted approximately 90 minutes.
I found myself analyzing the mass, funeral, and celebration of George's life. I found myself doing this in relation to what I had missed, not having attended the funeral of my own mother and father. While Gregory and I did our own form of celebration of their life, it felt very lonely. On the kitchen counter, where we also eat our meals, we set up an alter for each parent in their turn (March 5 2005 for dad and March 27 2010 for mom) which included burning a 24 hour candle next to their picture and a vase of beautiful flowers. Gregory and I lit the candle holding hands, said a few words of love, shed a few tears of sadness, and ended with, "Well good for her (him,) she (he) found their way out." We spend our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for the next few days with our memories as reflected by the alter.
Our experience at George's mass was quite different. Being in church, there was a prescribed order, based on the tenants of the Catholic Church. The order was predictable, familiar, and comforting to the family. Each prayer found its proper place after the casket was rolled to the front of the church, escorted by George's extended family, for one last time. To the family, the songs were familiar, the prayers were familiar, the mass was familiar. The beliefs were united. Faith pervaded.
The priest would say, "May God be with you." and the congregation would reply, "And with you." People knew when to cross themselves, when to rise, when to be seated. There were comforting thoughts, music, candle light, responsive reading. At one point everyone wished those around them peace with hugs or hand shakes exchanged, sometimes with total strangers.
In this house of worship, most of the people in the congregation knew each other, had helped celebrate the life and death of the other congregants, had attended Sunday, holiday, special masses, had attended religious classes, had grown up together and were born or passed away each in their time.
For the most part the thoughts and prayers were appropriate and not too erroneous. Stories of an afterlife and future for the departed, the deceased's now peaceful repose, the walking hand in hand with Jesus were retold again and were familiar. They comforted if only because of their multiple repetitions over the years.
Whether one believes in any of what a religion has to say, loosing oneself in the dogma and stories of the church for at least a brief period of time has its place in the face of the mysterious, painful, sad, incomprehensible question and mourning of the death of a loved one.
When one does not have that support only the mystery, inability to really understand what death is all about, possible fear, and lonliness exists. The ceremonies are for the living. The dead are already well on their way. The older I get, the more I realize the value of tradition and ceremony, friends and family.
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