This is an outline of a ceremony created by a Pastor who had been scheduled to do a conventional wedding which was prevented by the death of the groom in an early morning car crash. The bride insisted that she wanted to be married anyway, though her mother and most everyone else thought it was a crazy, if not heretical, idea. The pastor, who had done considerable pre-marriage counseling with the couple, judged that this bride was sincere and needed the closure. Therefore he agreed, but he thought carefully about what to do and why. For instance, he wore every high ceremonial garment he had.
A WEDDING OF LIFE AND DEATH
(The titles are mine, the words are those of the liturgist.)
1. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
An ad hoc ritual unfolded in the parlor where the body lay. (It could be said that the movement from the waiting room, across the threshold, into the parlor was a ritual act itself, the basic ingredient of which was the supportive hold of the Pastor and the walk side by side to the point of particular crisis.)
2. PLACEMENT BY THE COFFIN
Maree stood alongside the Pastor at the coffin and the Pastor maintained a ritual presence with her. There was not only emotional and theological need to support her: there was physical need, too. Both she and the Pastor were aware of the fact that she felt pained and faint. The Pastor stood alongside of her in a ritual stance that expressed sympathy and empathy with her. The two were over against the corpse. The ritual grouping saw them confronting the corpse (the representative, not only of death per se, but of a particularly horrible form of death).
3. RITUAL ADDRESS
Maree then began a ritual dialogue with her fiancee: she spoke out her feelings toward him. She held his hand while she did this and she spelt out in reverent tones and in a surprisingly composed frame of mind her feelings for him and what their relationship had meant for her.
4. PUTTING THE RING ON THE FINGER
Then came the moment when she placed the ring on his finger. After a little inquiry as to what the Pastor thought was the most appropriate thing to do (she was casting him in the role of ritual expert and was trusting him to ensure ritual propriety and completeness, which are important elements in producing peace of mind and a sense of achievement), she proceeded as the ritual functionary to place the ring on his finger. The stiffness of the victim’s hand did not detract from either the sanctity of the moment or the comfort of Maree. The whole event provided a tying of a tourniquet which sealed off satisfactorily for the time being so much of her longing and emotive desire.
5. PLEDGE OR VOTUM OR VOW
As she placed the ring on the finger, she spoke a meaningful accompanying votum: “Mark, this is to indicate everything that our marriage has meant for us.”
Then she kissed the head of the corpse in a dignified way. It’s hardness and coldness did not repel her, as the Pastor had feared. The kiss was not sustained, but it was accompanied by what the Pastor thought was appropriate crying without any sign of hysteria. All the while the Pastor was maintaining his supportive hold. Then, when she had exhausted what for her was a sufficient time of physical contact with him, she withdrew of her own volition. (Earlier in the ritual she had become physically weak and had said, “I just wish this heart of mine wouldn’t beat so fast.” The Pastor had interrupted the proceedings at that point and suggested, “why don’t we sit down for awhile, while you take a few deep breaths.” When she recovered, she resumed without further interruption.)
7. CHANGING POSITION TO NEW RELATIONSHIP.
To conclude the ritual she went, now unaided, to the opposite side of the coffin, affecting a significant change in ritual grouping, placing the Pastor in a new ritual role. He now saw himself over against her, and her alongside her fiancée.
8. COMPOSITE PRAYER
a. 23rd Psalm
Because he had the feeling he was meeting the need of Maree who had on another occasion requested prayer, the Pastor said, “Would you like me to say a prayer before we go?” She said, “I’m sorry I forgot to ask you: I meant to ask you before we came in.” The prayer the Pastor used was a composite prayer. It contained first of all the 23rd Psalm. This Psalm was chosen first because its movement resonated so well with the movement of the fiancée’s relationship with Maree, with the graph of the recent events, and with the hopes the Pastor held out for her. The Psalm -- like their pre-marital relationship -- begins on a high plateau for its first verses, then drops into a “valley experience” (paralleling the tragedy) and emerges into a scene of hope and blessedness. The Pastor chose the Psalm also because he realized that it is a well-known Psalm and Maree would be the more easily “touched” by a familiar biblical quote at that emotionally-charged juncture. He realized too that the Psalm has a long history of use in situations where people have needed comfort and sustenance, and that it depicts much about God’s pastoral care of His people. The Psalm was a “constant”; i.e. long-standing, continuing, traditional element in the ad hoc ritual.
b. Free Prayer
THANKS: The second component in the Pastor’s prayer was a free prayer, the first paragraph of which was a prayer of thanks in which he took pains to gather the details of the rewarding and enriching relationship that Maree and her fiancee had enjoyed. Maree had spelt out these details in the statement she had made to her fiancée. The Pastor had made a mental note of these details and he had gathered them as the substance of his paragraph of thanks. In that context the details served both to commemorate and celebrate the relationship for Maree.
SUPPLICATION: The next segment of the free prayer was the gathering of Maree’s needs in supplication. These, too, the Pastor had stored in his memory as they came to light in the counseling ministry for Maree. They included divine companionship, support, nurture, reassurance, guidance, understanding, comfort in sorrow.
COMMENDATION: The next component of the free prayer was a commendation of the fiancée, very similar to the classical commenations of the burial services. This, too, was a “constant” element in the rite and it provided ritual finality to the course that the dead man had been precipitated into.
c. Lord’s Prayer in Unison
Then the Pastor used the Lord’s prayer, again a “constant” component in a rite, and one which he felt sure Maree would be able to participate in. She did, and with reverence and even fervour. Because of the familiarity of the prayer, she could immerse herself in it.
9. AARONIC BENEDICTION
The final verbal feature in the rite was the Aaronic benediction. To symbolize the unity that Maree felt with her fiancée, and to give visible expression to the fact that, in Christ’s death had no power even to separate the living from the dead, the pastor placed on hand on Maree’s bowed head and one on the head of the corpse, and pronounced the benediction, which he felt would have salutary benefit for her.
10. SIGN OF THE CROSS
He made the sign of the cross at the close of the benediction to transcribe in “shorthand” the victory over death which Christ’s liberating and redeeming death on the cross has achieved. (In his earlier explanation of the funeral rite he had explained the significance of consignation.)
His words of dismissal, “Go in peace,” sealed off the one event, the contemplative and commemorative viewing, and set Maree upon a course toward the next event which lay in the future.
12. SECOND KISS AND RE-CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Maree then kissed her fiancée farewell and, together with the Pastor, left the parlor, again unaided by his physical support, but with him very much at her side.
[Tomorrow I’ll add the discussion from my thesis.]