Thursday, June 02, 2005

Rituals pt2

Aside from the brutal mechanics of the cremation last week, another aspect of the service left me in deeper than usual thought these last few days...

The speeches.

First off, I don’t want anyone who knew the person being cremated who reads this, and wasn’t there, to think the service went at all badly. It went well, as far as you can describe any funeral as going well.

The first person to speak was a priest. He said the right kind of things. He offered no theological explanation for the sense in someone dying so young. How could he? He might have chosen to say something like ‘Life doesn’t make any sense so why should Death?’ but chose instead to deliver a not entirely dissimilar message in a more diplomatic way. He then moved on and encouraged the people present to celebrate a life and to reflect on what that person meant to them.

Then a family member continued with the same theme and gave a short biography, peppered with childhood memories and anecdotes.

These two speeches set theme for the service and are the ones that stick in the memory. Which was just as well, given what followed.

The third person to speak was someone called Cheryl. Cheryl is a manager in a City bank. She was recently deprived of the use of one particular hard-working, conscientious member of staff. Cheryl was clearly in denial, as she proceeded to spend ten minutes giving what sounded very much like an annual staff appraisal of the deceased to the assembled crowd of mourners.

In that ten minutes we established that Cheryl was responsible for one of the most effective departments in her bank, even though she was short of capable staff. We were also treated to every single job title the deceased had ever had and a description of what those jobs involved, including all the relevant banking jargon. Apparently the deceased was very effective at clearing backlogs of ‘breaks’. Whatever the fuck breaks are.

As Cheryl’s all-encompassing awfulness unfolded before us, Tracy could see the blood rushing to my face. She gripped me by the wrist. The look on her face said it all, ‘Please don’t attack the spiritually dead psycho career bitch at my friend’s cremation. Please’.

Of course I wasn’t about the make a scene but I did flip out for a minute or two and started fantasising about being an Archangel, clapping my hands together with a thunderous roar and transforming Cheryl into a pillar of salt.

and then sprinkling her onto my fish and chips

Maybe next time Cheryl. I’ve got your card well and truly marked you sad, insecure, lonely and pathetic creature.

The really sad thing is that I live in a city, maybe a country, populated by hundreds of thousands of Cheryls and I want out. Desperately.

The fourth person to speak was another family member. Unlike the previous three speakers, including the priest, she chose to focus discussion on how great everything will be when we all rise up together in the next life.

Looking around, there didn’t seem to be many takers for that one.

Well, at least no-one giggled openly when the prospect of an afterlife was mentioned. I’ve seen that a couple of times before.

Yup, we’re all far too enlightened to believe in such things as Creator or a soul these days. We’re just flesh machines built to replicate DNA and worth no more than insects or bacteria. What was that service all about anyway? Just a dumb, instinctive ritual. All the ant-like humans getting together to dance around a fallen friend for a bit, then carrying on with their ant-like activities as if nothing had happened.

Actually I, for one, am more than willing to accept the possibility of God and even such a thing as an immortal soul. I see evidence of planning and purpose, consistent with Intelligent Design, in the World around me every day. The problem is that society essentially presents us with just two stark and mutually exclusive choices:

1. No point to anything at all when you get down to it

2. Obey men in silly hats

Neither of which rings true. Unfortunately, there’s really very little else on the table.

The possibility that both schools of thought might be equally wrong is never seriously discussed.

New Items for Stef’s To Do List: 1. Formulate new religion that makes sense to sane people without recourse to indoctrination or concepts such as faith 2. Make money out of it.

Aside from the truly appalling Cheryl and the reference to a Mickey Mouse afterlife, there was another faux pas that didn’t settle well with me. This was more subtle than the other two and probably passed unnoticed by the rest of the mourners. I’m guessing that Cheryl certainly didn’t pick up on it...

All the speakers kept going on about what nice holidays the deceased had.

One of the speakers even mentioned that she had quite a large CD collection.

Now I could be accused of being picky on this one. After all, their intention clearly was to demonstrate that our dead friend had enjoyed her life fully. But it didn’t work for me. How would I feel if I could tune into my own funeral and heard someone saying something like...

‘Stef had a good life. He died the proud owner of a nice car and a couple of Ipods. And let’s not forget that he had a cracking breakfast the day he died. The management team at Canon Cameras would like to send their heartfelt commiserations’

Mmmmm, tributes to the dead as great consumers …

Forget the dead for the moment. Is that how we measure our lives whilst we are still breathing? Do we really believe that someone who has travelled around a bit and bought some shit is living a more worthwhile life than someone who has never left their home town and never bought an MP3 player?

Actually, I think most of us really have been moulded into believing that.

Take my brother. He’s jealous of me because I’ve visited a few places in my life whilst he’s worked behind the counter of a sandwich bar for all of his life. I’m jealous of him because he has a beautiful, healthy little girl. Mind you, he is broke though.

I came away from the service thinking, once again, that I really should find a way to strap everyone into a chair, administer drugs and force them to watch It’s a Wonderful Life five or six hundred times…

Just to recap. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t necessarily win and a person’s material happiness is no measure that their life was worth living. Our only concern should be did that person have a decent, gentle soul and was it worth knowing them whilst they were here?

In the case of the person we said goodbye to last week the answer is a simple yes.


Peter said...

Sign me up for the religion. I don't have any money to give you though...

I've been playing around with a theory: In the last moment before your body dies, time almost stops and for you that moment seems like eternity.

In this eternal moment you relive your life in wonderful detail. Thus if you were a 'good person' you have a (largely) heavenly eternal moment, appreciating infinitesimal, forgotten details.

On the other hand if you were, say, a certain bank department's manager, you spend a purgatorial eternity lucidly reviewing how you managed to claw, scratch and haul your way up people's backs to the middle.

Or something like that.

Sorry for your loss Stef.

Stef said...

... of course everyone will still have to wear silly robes and chant a lot

re. final moments lasting for eternity, my great uncle (the one squatting in the family vault) died on the toilet, a roll up in his mouth and a newspaper on his lap, cut down tragically in his prime in his late seventies. I wonder how your theory would have worked out in his case.

Mind you, he did enjoy going to the toilet immensely ...

Re. the loss. It's much more Tracy and Phil's other long-standing friends' loss than mine. There's a service going on in New Zealand round about now. It's all so very, very sad

Peter said...

He'd be too busy appreciating his life to realise what state his body was in.

Then, coming to the end of his reliving, right before the joy of realising he was about to join the next part of the circle of life, he'd get to enjoy flashback humour and chuckle to himself about the ludicrousness of his final pose.

I'm clutching...

P.S. I think there's probably an old cassock and surplice knocking around somewhere. Easily customisable for the new faith.

Stef said...

Yes, he most certainly checked-out in a Life appreciation position. Given that he shuffled off this mortal coil quickly, without any illness and at an respectable age, it was also one of the more light-hearted funerals I've attended. No sense of a life unlived and an opportunity to draw some crude parallels with Elvis Presley

Good news about the vestments. Just make sure that they're machine washable. Those dry cleaning bills add up faster than you imagine