Post UU Memorial Services

So if this blog no longer concerns itself with Unitarian Universalist polity, what will be its new center of gravity? This is not so much a blog question as a ministry question. 

Spiritual liberals and progressives no longer see a value in organizing themselves into parishes or congregations, and it’s about to slam up and hit them — the free rangers — in the face. This is my experience in Vermont, which has the highest per capita UU self-identity, and an anomalously large UU society. Its meetinghouse is the not only the most identified landmark of the major metropolitan area, but the most widely trusted for the numerous “I’m not religious” lefties who have re-rooted our once-barren landscape and blossomed into a national arboretum of left-wing courage.

Here’s where my ministry comes in: I have no position on the staff of the Society. I have no formal UU ministerial affiliation, other than “retired community minister.” And yet, in the ceremonial seasons of spring and fall, my skills are needed for formal celebrations of a departed life. We are not yet off the old divinity school chart, in which one axis is “worship style” (high or low) and one is “theological style” (formal or informal). when I substitute “polity” for “theology,” I can see the same issue: people who have never “been to church” in their lives still know good liturgy — and they want it when it’s time to commemorate someone’s passing. They just don’t want formal polity to extend its timeline.

That makes total sense, because “liturgy” means “work of the people.” Lately, I find myself crafting memorial services which give more and more space for speakers from the family and community — no more eulogies, at least not many. What they want from me is structure: a framework of readings, silences, music to stop their thoughts from rambling, their tears from exploding, the throats from choking closed. On the day itself, my carefully-chosen selections have no more weight than the way I call the names of the participants, standing calmly beside them, a little way off, as they speak or play. Make sure there are tissues on the podium. The microphone picks up their voice.

No longer are there any particular words which can universally signify the comfort that “life remains as we intend.” There probably never were. But now we acknowledge that each individual death requires different readings — from global literature and world scriptures — to celebrate the life which has brought us together. As an avid secular reader, I’ve begun to let myself delight in finding the right passages, even as my Jewish-Christian spirit mourns the ebbing of a once-revitalizing tide. And the wider I cast my net, the more delighted are the fish stuck in my boat.

The problem is: how does one tie off all this shared passion? It’s rather like trying to decide whether to settle into sleep after a passionate one-night stand. Are we ready to face each other’s disheveled morning grunge, deal with who likes to talk over coffee and who just wants to listen to NPR? What do you say to each other when there is no, “What time will you be home tonight?” available? the Reverend Richard Leonard performed hundreds of weddings at The Unitarian Church of All Souls, and he used to send a card to each couple on their anniversary. I can’t do that at this age, although if I were starting out, I might try it.

Once I admitted I couldn’t be Dick Leonard (and no one else can), I understood the beauty of “C & E’s”. “High Holiday Jews.” The Membership Committee, the Canvass Chair, they are squinting through the candlelight to figure out who are all these strangers. In synagogues, I am sure the leaders are fighting off Yom Kippur hunger to see who might be ready for more than the annual ticket.  In the departure line, regular Sunday worshipers fidget impatiently as unfamiliar faces draw the cleric’s lingering conversation. What is happening is that the regulars are seeing the free rangers. The umbra and penumbra are uniting briefly into one shadow with a distinguishable shape. Beyond the boundaries of covenant, edges which bear its shape cut into the barren terrain exactly as the original fills the air inside the sanctuary. Every time I am done with one of my services, I passionately wish there were a C & E, High Holiday calendar in this religion, because then we would all know when we would meet again… maybe not just this year, but in five years. Maybe just next time someone dies.

But what is the value of this to the regulars? Free rangers (which is not the same as wanderers who stumble through ) know they have a vested interest in the regulars who covenant. On special occasions, the free rangers probably want to be asked to help out. In my favorite book about Hindu village culture, the long-ago anthropological study, “Behind Mud Walls,” William H. Wiser and Charlotte Vail Wiser describe how, on routine days, it’s just a few women who show up at the temple each day to do puja. But when the temple needs repairing, suddenly the entire village — and all the men as well — present themselves ready to work and donate. It’s a wonderful productive week, and then everyone goes back to normal life. Once again, daily puja draws only a few women and the priests. But that work week has shown that even though a lot of people don’t appear to feel a need for the temple very often, they keenly feel the need to know it will be there once in awhile.

This works better for supporting buildings than supporting clergy. I am starting to suspect that my profession — community ministry — needs to negotiate a radical restructuring of fees with the cremation industry. As caskets have gotten smaller, and usually disappeared into urns. the ceremonies have gotten larger and more complicated. No more does the cleric just pull down the standard text and appear at the appointed hour. “Attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller wrote, in “Death of a Salesman,” and that attention comes out of our lives. It’s take-out dinners instead of the slow-cooked economy model. It’s gas for the home visit, hours to read through all the old familiar quotes, the ceremonies that worked best, for elements that start the crafting of this one unique ceremony.

As I say, with all this beloved work, when these ceremonies end, the good-byes can be a little awkward. I’m not good at closure anyway, which is the main reason I want to get out of this industry. That’s what I liked about parish work — the stable, ongoing relationships.

But perhaps a lot of folks feel this discomfort — both the mourners and the clerics, the free rangers and the regulars.

So instead of just saying, “I quit, ” I’m putting it out there. What are other folks finding, both in settlement and beyond? 

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