Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rites & Wrongs of Passage

"The funeral was in the chapel of a navy base, conducted by a retired Episcopal priest of, I believe, Southern middle-of-the-road churchmanship. While the service was not without reverence and the priest was genuinely considerate of the sadness of the loss, he seemed to be trying to keep the service casual.

For the homily, he came out from behind the altar and leaned on the end of it rather than going to the pulpit. When he prepared the vessels on the altar for Communion, there was no formality to his actions: He might just as well have been getting dishes out of the kitchen cupboard for lunch.

There were awkward pauses at several points while he flipped through his book, apparently looking for his place. He also seemed rushed. Since the service was lengthened by the inclusion of Holy Communion, one began to wonder whether he was afraid it would run too long, making us late for the committal at the cemetery.

The deceased was a retired Marine Corps Reserve officer, and, at the request of his widow, the Marine Corps provided pall bearers, as well as a detail for the rifle salute and taps at the interment. This took place in a nearby Veterans Administration cemetery. There the priest first conducted the committal service.

Marine Reverence

Then the marines took over. Everything they did was deliberate, well practiced, careful, unhurried. It was pure ritual. It was clear that they took seriously what they were doing. Every movement had been considered, and, I assume, drilled ahead of time. It was to be done correctly in every detail, with dignity and honor, without regard to time: Seemingly this was all that mattered to them.

The precision and dignity was a matter of honor. At the end, the flag was presented to the widow by the commander of the marines on the base. He could easily have sent a junior officer to deal with a reserve officer’s burial, but chose not to. It was all profoundly moving, as a number of mourners remarked after the services.

The care and dignity of the military rite put the Christian rites to shame. I don’t believe that the priest was intentionally irreverent or unprepared. But by comparison with the marines’ reverent ritual, the chapel service and the committal seemed slapdash..."