Need a reality check on sumptin' . .

(Fr. Bill Mouser) #1

Last Saturday I attended a funeral for a man whom I had not interacted with much in over 20 years. Our paths just did not cross ordinarily. But, he and his wife were exceptionally kind to me and my wife and my eight-year old daughter during the time she was dying from a brain tumor.

After the illness began to severely impair her mobility and her vision, they would pick her up in the mid-morning and return her to us around supper time. It was a welcome break for Barbara and me. It was also a welcome break for Cheska, for they’d always arrange something diverting for her - usually some kind of low-impact field trip, say to a petting zoo, or a high tea. Something an 8 or 9 year old desperately ill girl would genuinely enjoy. Barbara and I remained ever grateful for their faithful, abiding kindness.

So, to honor him and to honor his widow (whom Barbara would run into a couple of times a year in the shops around town) we turned out for the funeral. It probably would have been a bitter-sweet affair for us, except for this:

The funeral was in a church - a church we attended for 14 years and departed when the national church just got to be too too much to ignore or to bear with (another story, some other time). After all were seated and the prelude music had stopped, we sat there in the silence for long enough to wonder if something was awry. And then to our horror, this happened:

I saw out of the corner of my eye a tall man in a dark uniform materialize in my peripheral vision. I turned to look as he passed near us (we were near the front, next to the center aisle), and I saw that he was a Sikh. He had the tightly woven turban characteristic of the men of that religion. He approached the chancel with very slow formality, stood at attention, and then offered a very slow, precise salute toward Fred’s remains (in an urn).

Then the man did one of those ballet-like about-face maneuvers, again in very slow motion. Seeing him from his front, now, it was clear he was in a United States Army formal uniform. He had a smattering of stuff often found on the front of those uniforms. Then he stood at attention as the silence continued.

What next? Fairly soon, here comes another United States Army serviceman, this one not a Sikh, uncovered, carrying a folded flag. I won’t belabor the details of what turned out (I’m guessing) to be the Army’s “flag ceremony” when the deceased is cremated. It was presented to the widow. Then both faced the chancel again, saluted in that super-formal, super-slow way, then about faces, and a very slow exit.

By this time I was minded to pick up something from the pew rack and throw it after them. I did not. But, that spectacle continued to fog everything that happened for the next hour. My lovely bride, poor thing, was near to vibrating as we walked to the car.

I am a veteran (USMC; Viet Nam vet). I know that we veterans are entitled by statute to receive a military honor such as was offered Fred at his funeral. I have told my wife, and I will also tell my children, to forbid such honors at my funeral.

Am I erring in this? Was our outrage inappropriate?

For the record, we did nothing (so far as I recall) to let this reaction show to others. Who knows? Perhaps that was inappropriate. :thinking:The whole situation caught me completely off base, out of position to think or to act calmly. In those situations I usually become morbidly stoic.

I’m asking a serious question. Someone somewhere said something about the safety in a multitude of counselors. I judge the current inhabitants of Sanityville to be serious Christians, and because my own departure cannot be very far away (all things considered), I’m putting the question out here for serious evaluation by others.

(Joseph Bayly) #2

Can you explain a bit more what in particular you found so troubling?

  • it was a Sikh?
  • the flag ceremony itself?
  • the priorities?
  • something else or all of the above?

(I take it you also wouldn’t be cremated, but that is normal and didn’t catch you off guard.)

(Fr. Bill Mouser) #3

*** it was a Sikh?**

I think it was this. At least. But, not because he was a Sikh per se. Here we are in the middle of a building devoted to the worship of the Christian God, gathered for a Christian funeral service, one which is, in fact, a Eucharistic service - and, before one syllable of that service is uttered, a non-Christian, wearing a badge which proclaims his allegiance to a pagan deity, grabs everyone’s attention, in order to perform an essentially non-religious ceremony.

Yes. That torgued me mightily.

  • the flag ceremony itself?

Not as much as the insertion of the Sikh, but yes - that too. This is a service in the honor of our Lord, marking the departure on one who belongs to Him. The United States government, nor any of its agencies, has any standing here.

  • the priorities?

Possibly, though I think I’d not be able to tease this out as a separate trigger all by itself.

  • something else or all of the above?

Yes, I was disappointed that Fred was cremated. But, I cannot take any personal umbrage over this. I was glad - in gratitude to both Fred and his widow - to attend his funeral. I was not at all prepared for the intrusion of a someone explicitly in allegiance to another god, at the very beginning of the affair.

As to my current decision to refuse anything like this at my own funeral, I am determined that nothing like this happen when I am laid in the ground (which is where I’ve seen flag ceremonies like this in the past). In those instances, they were always after a funeral service.

Yes, yes - I know someone may find me inconsistent at feeling no intrusion of “civil religion” in other funeral services I’ve attended that included flag ceremonies at the graveside. I accept the charge and reply that I repent me of such, and as works befitting that repentance I direct that there will be no such inconsistency at my own funeral.

(Jeremy Vander Galien) #4

Sorry to divert from your question, but the kind of love those dear people provided brought me to tears. Wonderful. Wow. Very encouraging and challenging. Thanks for sharing that.

(Jeremy Vander Galien) #5

A couple of thoughts that came to mind as I read:

  • The portion of the service that tweaked me as I read was when the Sikh entered the scene. Blasphemy! That really ticked me off. Not sure if that helps, but if I was on the way to outrage just reading the account.
  • I’ve officiated services and allowed for military honors at the graveside. I haven’t allowed this during the actual funeral service at the church. Now, I wonder, is even this concession right? Thoughts?
  • Not knowing you, or all that much about the church you left 14 years ago, outrage seems entirely appropriate in regards the church and/or denomination for being so far from biblical fidelity as to allow something so awful to take place.
  • Related to the above, though not at the level of outrage, I wonder if we shouldn’t be more vocal and loving in regards to teaching and rebuking cremation. I struggle to hold my peace when I attend the funerals of believers who choose to be cremated. I haven’t been outraged, but am sad and angered.

(Fr. Bill Mouser) #6

Thank you for your comments, Pr. Jeremy. A couple of thoughts in reply . . .

In all the post-funeral graveside flag ceremonies I’ve attended over my lifetime (a lot of them, too; I’m 72 years old), the flag ceremony always seemed (1) an incidental, since it comes after the funeral proper, and (2) an allowable honor to acknowledge the deceased’s prior military service.

Ordinarily, in my many days as an Anabaptist sort of Christian, there was nothing especially “worshipful” about the graveside service. A concluding prayer. Perhaps one more reference to the resurrection.

In an Anglican graveside service, there is a specific rite of committal in the Prayer Book, performed at the graveside, led by the priest but involving all those who are present - they have responses to what the priest is saying, for example. It’s a small liturgy.

My body will be committed to the ground (Lord willing), with this liturgy, and so - upon reflection from this disturbing event - I’ve decided that there should be no intrusion into it. This is, I admit again, a change from what I previously thought was acceptable.

I am pretty sure that no one - not the family, not the presiding priest at this funeral, no one - knew that a Sikh was going to go through all this kabuki-military stuff at the very beginning of the service. The choice of whom to send from the United States Army is a choice of the United States Army! The family of the deceased veteran have no say at all about who shows up.

I can’t off-hand think of any other religion where the US Army has made such a concession as they seem to have done with Sikhs, that is to permit them to wear their turbans as part of otherwise standard Army uniforms. But, such is the case today in the USA. And, because I have experienced the shock and dismay of such a display, I know now (1) to refuse the opportunity for a Sikh to crash my funeral, and (2) to warn my Christian friends, not only about cremation (see below) but also about the possibility of Sikhs showing up inappropriately.

I have been much, much more inclined to warn and teach from the pulpit against mutilations of the body (i.e. tattoos; cremation) after I noticed that in our Lord’s resurrected body it showed wounds inflicted both pre-morten (His hands and feet) and also post-mortem (the wound in His side). It now gives me the willies to wonder what the effect of cremation may have on the resurrected body of a Christian!

We don’t know, of course. But, that’s a major reason for caution, for reserve, for following the custom of the saints in Scripture for millennia.

Yes, it was indeed a lengthy kindness, extending over months, almost up to the time of her death.Cheska would always return from those outings overflowing with joy and pleasure and excited reports on what they had done that time. I know Fred and his wife spent considerable time preparing for these outings, researching things to do, for example. They weren’t the only ones either - several other families, or single people, stepped forward to give relief to Cheska and to me and my wife.

When it came time for the funeral, we had to move to an Episcopal Church 25 miles away, in order to find a place large enough for the attendees. The place was packed with about 300 people, and I do not think I have ever in my entire life had so much focused attention from a congregation as I did when I preached her funeral sermon.

(Tim Bayly) #7

Wow. Just wow. Missed that entirely. Been marking Bible texts having to do with cremation the past two years.

(Paul Ojanen) #8

Thanks for the warning. My grandfather’s family will be receiving a flag (during the funeral) this weekend. We are now asking about the particulars, and we are prepared to de-emphasize it.