Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Dangerous Transition and the Saint of Glastonbury

Up until the last two years of my life, acknowledgement of predictable transitions were the norm.  Things like summer vacations, graduations, showers, and weddings. I have three graduations to look forward to and probably weddings in the future but there is a more frequent and sobering acknowledgement that does not ease its way onto the calendar in an ordered "save the date" kind of way.  It's the sort of thing that causes everyone to jump into action for a period of days.  The demeanor of those forced to arrange this particular transition is strange - they are the "functioning dazed."  When it's over, the participants can experience anything from resignation to unabashed, raw grief.  And the person at the center of this acknowledgement?  I believe he or she is in the presence of Love, or awaiting the summons to be in the presence of Love or, and this is so hard to even think about, separated from Love ... forever.

My mother's parents died on the same day when I was eight, so my siblings and I were farmed out to my dad's side of the family for a week.  It was, for us, an unmarked transition.  We went from family life with a relatively happy mother to life with a grief-stricken woman of sorrows.  She didn't really came back to herself for a long time and we, her very own children, had been non-participants.  It was a dangerous transition, the order of our family destabilized. When my father died, we'd all been dealing with low-grade grief for so many years, it seemed more like a flare-up than a fresh outbreak of bereavement. It was my first funeral.

The funerals started happening a little more regularly as I grew older.  Great-aunts and great-uncles, friends of my grandparents, the occasional accident or illness resulting in the death of someone from my parents' generation, or, shockingly, from my own.  Then my Uncle Fred died suddenly. The neighbors two doors down lost their toddler to leukemia. A friend commited suicide.  And then there would be a year or two where I was not obliged to attend a funeral or send condolences because the degree of separation between me and the deceased was wide enough.

In 1995, I met a woman named Laura.  She and I became great friends.  Her dad had died on the golf course when she was only seven.  She has eleven siblings, so she was one of the younger kids in the family when it happened.  She told me that in the years after her dad died, her mom used to take her and some of her brothers and sisters to funerals.

"Why," I said, "Did you know a lot of other people who died?"

"No, we had a Saint Joseph of Arimathea Club.  The Club consisted of a few big families and we would go to poorly attended funerals so there'd be more than a couple mourners in the church. The priest always knew if the person who'd died had no family or had outlived everyone."

I am a Catholic convert, and I know that Saint Joseph of Arimathea is the patron Saint of funeral directors, grave diggers and coffin makers. He was the one who got Pontius Pilate to hand over the Body of Jesus and he was the one who gave up his own tomb for the Crucified. There is also a lovely and pious legend about Joseph founding the Christian Oratory at Glastonbury in Britain around 65 A.D. and if that weren't pious and lovely enough, you can add to that the Holy Grail and the Glastonbury Thorn. But in my mind's eye, I've constructed a tableau of children at a funeral, showing up for the dangerous transition when their degree of separation is about as wide as it gets.

I groped for an appropriate response. "That's really neat, but strange."

"No," Laura said. "It's not strange at all.  It's participating in a work of mercy."

Funerals are, today, where I see my extended family.  Funerals are where I see old friends. My so-called "degree of separation" has crumbled in so many ways and as I edge closer to the precipice myself, I think of that conversation with my friend Laura all those years ago: "It's not strange at all.  It's participating in a work of mercy."
Glastonbury Abbey

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