Reinventing Rites of Passage

The late Father Gerry Curry (1934-2019) was ordained in 1960 as a member of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society and served 15 years in Japan, returning home to Canada in 1975 to become editor of Scarboro Missions Magazine, which he did from 1975-79 and again from 1989-2003.

Father Gerald Curry

Father Gerald Curry

As his obituary stated, Fr Curry’s concerns encompassed “social justice, the integrity of creation, the empowerment of women, refugees and all who are poor and marginalized.” He believed in the Golden Rule which featured on a poster he passed along to friends, indicating that all the major religions throughout the world promoted the idea that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Fr. Curry passed away on March 10, having lived a life devoted to the people of God, and “as an outspoken witness to the Gospel and to the things that make for peace.”

As a member of a discussion group to which Fr. Curry also belonged, I came to appreciate his views on various aspects of church doctrine and dogma — views that were ahead of their time. In fact, he presented me with a set of books by Mary T. Malone, a professor at the Toronto School of Theology, now retired and living in Ireland. Malone’s trilogy documented “the lives and contributions of Christian women from the beginning of Christianity to the present.” (It was quite a contribution, by the way, and not one that was common knowledge among or much referenced to young Catholic women. After all, it wasn’t as if women’s place in the church was a major concern to those in control.)

I believe Mary T. would have approved of and encouraged Fr. Curry’s choice of six women (myself included) to serve as honorary pallbearers at his funeral. Not an earth-shattering occurrence for sure, but certainly an acknowledgement of his belief in empowering women in the Catholic church. His request that women be called on to serve in this capacity at his own funeral might set an example, one assumes, both for other women who would be honored to carry out this final tribute to a deceased person, and for other pastors who might be open to their participation.

It certainly isn’t commonplace to have women serve as pallbearers, honorary or otherwise, although it has happened and is, according to the Chancery Office in Antigonish, acceptable in the diocese. It just isn’t a request that’s made very often.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter in July 2017, Melissa Musick Naussbaum told of her mother’s desire to have her 10 granddaughters serve as actual pallbearers for her, just as their grandsons had done years earlier for their grandfather. Her suggestion wasn’t received very favorably — she was told it would be “disrespectful,” although the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States and the Holy See (that would be the Vatican) had approved the practice. In the end the granddaughters did, in fact, carry their grandmother’s coffin from the church to her place of burial.

 

We realize every day (especially those of us who regularly read the obituaries — yes, I know, to check that we’re not among the departed) that death and the practices surrounding it are changing considerably. I actually counted one day that of 13 obituaries, only five were having visitation, something considered part and parcel of a death in any family not that long ago.

Visitation once took place in the home of the deceased, lasted at least two days and often involved family members remaining up all night, until it gradually became acceptable — not to mention more convenient — to hold visitation at the funeral home. Indigenous people continue to wake their deceased in the home, something they have always done.

Cremation, in the Catholic church, was verboten, and even when changes in the 1960s allowed for it, the standard farewell — involving incense and holy water — was not included. I know I found that very strange, given we had been taught forever that our fate was “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Eventually, ashes received the full funeral rites and, as we know, cremation is commonplace and definitely acceptable.

Eulogies were always a problem, and while I believe a well-delivered eulogy by a person who knew and loved the deceased can give us a much more personal view of the person, I know of eulogies that have gone awry, serving only to make those present squirm in their pews. Allowing the celebrant to check it out beforehand seems a reasonable request, as is, I think, agreeing to the timing of the eulogy, either before or after the liturgy.

Attending funerals these days can be an eye-opener. Music is often chosen because the deceased liked certain songs and rather than hymns, one might hear music not at all associated with death. I recall hearing “Rocking Alone In Her Old Rocking Chair” at a relative’s funeral and finding it quite appropriate. Those of my vintage will recall the “Dies Irae, dies illa,” sung at every funeral, (in Latin, of course) and give thanks that the old ritual gave way to a much more uplifting and hopeful liturgy. “Dies irae” translates as “That day of wrath, that dreadful day shall heaven and earth in ashes lay, as David and Sybil say.” Further along —  “What horror must invade the mind when the approaching Judge shall find and sift the deeds of all mankind.” Scary!

In West Africa and in many American states, people of African descent often “dance their dead” to their final resting place.  Dressed in black or white and wearing white gloves, the coffin bearers (men, of course) dance their way down the street and into the church or the place of burial. These professional pallbearers represent another change in funeral protocol. They offer an option if the deceased has no immediate family or close friends to perform this necessary task, but also for a certain ‘elite,’ looking, no doubt, for something completely different.

These days, there might be no funeral at all, but rather a gathering of family and friends celebrating the life of the deceased as he or she would have wanted (or even dictated). I remember on one occasion at least, a man decided to have his funeral gathering while he was alive and able to enjoy it. Funeral directors these days have to be open to giving people what they want in their farewell-to-life gatherings and it doesn’t always resemble what we have long considered appropriate.

Fr. Curry’s funeral bore no resemblance to any of the above, with the exception of the addition of honorary women pallbearers. It was a solemn and hope-filled liturgy marking the end of a life of service. In his own way, he might have set a precedent though, and more granddaughters, aunts, sisters, nieces and cousins may have the opportunity, the honor and the desire to carry a loved one to their final resting place.

Featured image: I have tried my best to find the source (and a description) of the image I’ve used on the home page but so far, I haven’t been successful When I find out more, I will update this caption.

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

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