December 12, 2005


Contracts. Wills. Weddings. Funerals.

Ceremonial steps to make sure that all involved are aware of what's really going on. Notification to the world. Historical hoops to jump through because that's what the ages tell us we should do -- and part of how we all recognize what's going on is the simple compliance with tradition for tradition's sake. It's how many injustices are perpetrated throughout the ages, and for much of my life, I was a questioner. I refrained from accepting even the most simple of traditions without asking "why?" Occasionally, I even went so far as to upset those closest to me with my refusal to partake in a ceremony if I couldn't understand the rationale behind the motions.

Given that introduction, it shouldn't be surprising that I think of myself as spiritual, but not particularly religious. However, I had a Lutheran education as part of my upbringing, and all the big events of my family history have been loosely tied to Christianity. I haven't so much rejected religion as found a way to be spiritual in my own way that doesn't require a congregation, sermons, adherence to a particular brand of dogma, and allows for more questioning, philosophy and incorporation of the useful bits from other religions, cultures and my own personal life experience.

In keeping with that approach, this morning, I waited 'til all the family had left and I took some time by myself to walk around the ranch and say my goodbye to my papa on his land. It was where he wanted me to remember him, it was where he was born, where he died, where I will always picture him, and it's beautiful. I cried, sobbing in the open air, gasping for breath with the reality of his passing and how I'll never see him again. But I knew he was in pain at the end, that he had a full life to be celebrated, and that he was ready to go, so finally, I looked around me, looked up, took a deep breath and prepared myself for the funeral. I had completed my personal, spiritual goodbye and could be there to support my family at the traditional, formalistic one.

I was surprised to find, however, that hearing Eccleasiastes 3, Psalm 23, and saying the Lord's prayer in unison with over one hundred fellow mourners was balm to my stormy soul. The words washed over me and helped the primal part of me understand what my conscious mind was in the painful process of accepting -- it was time to say goodbye. This is how we do it. This is the real thing.

And I think, on some level, that is why I switched from one who didn't believe in weddings or marriage, to one who is struggling with the details of implementing one. Long ago, E and I understood our personal commitment to one another, but the act of being joined as man and wife in a wedding ceremony will formalize the reality. There is something amazing, awe-inspiring, soul-quieting, and hyperreal about taking part in a ritual that has been passed down through untold numbers of generations. Today, a part of me embraced the ritual to help me truly accept my Papa's passing. The connection to my history was more comforting than I could have imagined.

I understood the calming effect much more as I watched my niece today, almost four years old, too young to really understand what was going on, but old enough to comprehend some of it. She's been through the ritual once now. It's part of her, and on some level, because we were all crying and tried to explain that she can't see Papa anymore, some part of her knows what these steps mean. Someday, when she needs it most, the memories of today will sweep up from her subconscious and explain to her what is happening at a funeral where she needs to accept an incomprehensible loss and grief. Most importantly, she will remember that it's a part of life, and that we all got through it.

Formalism. What a fascinating human thing.

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