Tuesday, October 28, 2014


One of my thesis examples of rituals of EXPERIENCE rather than prescribed liturgy is the case of the dead groom.  He had been killed in an auto accident on the way to the wedding, only hours before the scheduled rite.  The pastor, who was in a liturgical tradition, was presented with the dilemma of the bride's grief.  In the tradition of this conservative family, marriage was a divinely sanctioned and life-altering ceremony of commitment.  It was a transition into the rest of life.  The bride wished to complete this ceremony, feeling that her commitment to this man was not lessened by death, since God’s inclusive and eternal life are promised by Christianity and marriage is part of that.  

The first question was whether to go along with this -- or whether it was some macabre and irrational idea.  In the end, with the help of the family, it was understood that the marriage ceremony was the completion of a trajectory from dating, to friendship, to engagement, to marriage, but that the bride was not crazy.  She didn’t expect to take the body on a honeymoon.  But she needed completion of intention of marriage in order to stay centered.

Even dead people sometimes need a place to sit.

The next question was what sort of ceremony.  First, it was agreed that it would be entirely private with no witnesses.  The governmental requirements of the license could not be completed anyway since from the legal standpoint the person who bought the license didn’t exist any longer.  This was a Christian religious ceremony.  God would be present.  The bride wanted to wear her dress and exchange rings, but she didn’t ask for the full traditional ceremony in the sanctuary.  There was some concern that she might be overcome by emotion, maybe even faint and there was no way to predict the behavior of others.

However, the pastor wore his formal vestments.  The ceremony he partly adapted and partly improvised was done with the body present.  This couple had been members of this congregation for years and there had been considerable counseling about their beliefs and desires while preparing for marriage.  The pastor could draw on a body of familiar and well-loved material that the bride had shared with the groom.  After the rings had been exchanged, the pastor simply put a hand on each head, one living and one dead, and blessed them.  He withdrew off to the side for a few moments to leave the bride to absorb what had just happened and to feel completion if it had worked.  It did.  From then on the preparation for the funeral was conventional.

There’s a famous story recounted by Clifford Geertz when he was working as an anthropologist in SE Asia.  The area was in transition between a traditional religious system and people who were converting to a new one.  There was a death but the man had been between systems: neither the old nor the new.  No one knew what to do, so the dead man could not be buried.  Finally Geertz stepped in, suggesting a ceremony that was simple but didn’t contradict either system.

Now here’s a family story with long-lasting consequences.  About the time of my paternal grandmother’s death my mother and my paternal aunt (my father’s sister) fell into resentment of each other but neither exactly understood why.   They just had the feelings.  There was no one who could recognize and interpret them.

Half a century later, full of myself, I tried to explain my own version of what had happened, a matter of underlying assumptions about the role of women.  The aunt’s daughter misunderstood and was scandalized by what she thought I said.  She has not had the long consciousness-raising that I've had.  She thought I said her mother broke up my mother's marriage.

My aunt dressed for graduation from higher education.
She had earned a Certificate in Domestic Science.

My father’s family was Scots, secular, immigrant, and homesteaders on the prairie.  They were not “churchy,” but rather “prairie humanists” with a strong progressive bent. They believed in cooperation -- as in the prairie wheat board co-ops -- as the key to progress, but were quite guarded as a family.  Archibald, the great-grandfather who had instigated the migration, was of the sort who felt a man with opportunity (like democracy) could rise to the equivalent of the heights of the class structures that dominated Britain.  The family understanding of itself as superior was essentially a mix of Scots belief in education and English recognition of middle class respectability.  That is, “presentation.”  Manners. Reputation.  Conventional behavior.

There were four sibs, three boys and a girl.  (Actually, the firstborn didn’t survive or there would have been five.)  My aunt was beautiful: blonde, talented, carefully groomed.  Her brothers felt she was a “lady,” a treasure to be protected, and she was.  Not that she wasn’t capable of hard work.  She helped build a house.  She was also a painter of delicate pictures and adept at sewing and embellishment.

My maternal grandmother is standing in the middle of the front row.
The army nurse-to-be is on the left end of the back row.  The sheep rancher's wife is second from the right in the back row.
I think my mother must have been the photographer.

My mother’s side was more Irish with a history going back into the settlement of Kentucky.  Again there were four sibs but all girls.  One was killed in an auto accident, one became an army nurse stationed in Rheims and Oxford during WWII, and one was a ranch wife on a sheep farm where she helped deliver lambs.  These girls were taught they were as good as any boys, which is what their father had really wanted.  They could drive a nail or plow a field of corn, but always understood that boys would be better.  My mother’s education was interrupted by the Depression.  My father’s career and general mental health was badly damaged by a car crash in 1948.  When my mother saw my father was not going to sustain the family, she went back to school and got her teaching certificate.  From then on she taught, put me through college, and more or less supported the family.

What I tried to explain was that the two women, my mother and her sister-in-law, had style differences derived from family beliefs about what a woman was and how they ought to be treated.  When my mother went back to school, my father felt pushed out.  He began to withdraw, comforting himself with books, cameras and records.  But also relying more on his relationship to his birth family, esp. the idea that he was a hero taking care of a lady, first his mother and then his sister.  He would visit them secretly.

My mother raised 80 acres of corn with this leased mule.
She didn't quite make enough money for a year's college tuition.
She was a math major at Albany College which became Lewis & Clark.

My mother felt him moving away from us.  There was no understanding of what a pre-frontal cortex trauma would do.  He was a traveling man, on the road all week.  The story was that he loved being on the road, preferred it.  But maybe he only preferred it to home.  I think his sister felt his unhappiness and tried to reassure him of his manliness, while my mother began to worry about desertion on some secret level.  She buried my father from her Presbyterian home church in Portland, though he was never a member of any church, and worried what she might find when his belongings were sorted.  Maybe a second wife.  There was none, but there was no connection with his birth family after that.

My cousin and I are retired old ladies now -- she’s firmly married, I’ve been divorced and on my own for decades.  She lives in the house she grew up in. She has never attended church but her husband does.  Her husband lost all his money so they are dependent on what she made during years she taught grade school, but he compensates by doing all the shopping and cooking, a role that would never have occurred to my father.  She and her mother were “agoraphobic” which the cousin calls "shy", insisting that she herself is simply “private.”  The aunt died after years of dementia.

My mother is also dead, sharp right up to the moment of death at home, and proud of her participation in Portland events.  I say I’m a recluse, but I attend almost every town meeting.  I'm cloistered in order to write, in keyboard contact with dozens of people.

The style difference -- as hard to decipher as the bride trying to complete her marriage or the people in Geertz’ village trying to figure out a proper burial -- is between two understandings of my father, but also two different understandings of what a woman should expect.  Is a woman a “lady” to be romantically cherished or is a woman a support and backup system as good as a man?  (In his latest years my father called my mother “Mommy,” which drove her crazy.)

On the cusp of a shift (1950)

These are the things that ideally should be resolved before two people commit to each other.  It hardly matters whether they are same sex or not.  Are they on the same wavelength when it comes to core expectations?  Not just at the level of conventional expectations (there are conventional expectations even of same sex couples or polygamist marriages) but about what a person essentially is.

My cousin jumped to the idea that there was something sexual in our mothers’ rivalry, that I was accusing my aunt of breaking up my parents’ marriage.   The sex snake wiggles into everything.  The naive little old ladies around here used to be puzzled by what gay men “did” in marriage, because to them it meant entitlement to reproductive sex.  I think by now they’ve been enlightened.  But recently I watched a video about a woman who “married herself,” with a dress, a ceremony, and a party, and afterwards another innocent asked,  “But what will she do for sex?  You can’t have sex with yourself!”   We have a lot of education to do, especially on the level of subconscious assumptions. 

Grace Gelder, who married herself.

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