I’m left with questions about the unconventional readings at my mother’s funeral.
In our hasty church shopping to grant our mother’s last wish of a funeral mass, my brother and I considered your parish. We had some distant family history there.
But we finalized our decision based on the endorsement from the funeral home. In the midst of our mental and physical exhaustion, we were reassured that you, the pastor, were “laid-back” and “like us.” The funeral home professional described you as casual, often going by your first name when you enjoyed craft beers at the neighborhood bar.
In the brief planning phone call, you told me you “just liked to make things simple for the families,” and only asked that we recruit a reader for the Old Testament passage. I sighed with relief as we concluded our conversation. I liked “simple” in a time of high stress and emotions. I liked the idea of relinquishing some responsibility.
When I met you before the service, you asked questions about my mother, then told me, “We just go with the readings of the day, to keep things simple.” I nodded in a similar chill style. “Simple,” again.
“I get it. Why micromanage the message?” I thought, trustfully.
Then you said, without apology or hesitation: “Just so you know, today’s Gospel reading is Mark 5:1-20. When Jesus heals the possessed man by driving out demons via pigs.”
I should have just politely asked, “Aren’t there some nice verses about God being a shepherd?” But I didn’t. Grief’s dominant stages of shock and denial don’t steer people toward sensible reactions. Instead, I tried to prepare family members. “Well, I guess Mom’s dark humor strikes again! Ha ha! Well, you can’t control life, can’t control funeral readings!” When their eyes grew bigger, I walked away. “Trust the priest,” I whispered to myself. “Don’t get worked up. Be cool. He likes craft beer.”
As the service began, I realized you hadn’t even warned me about the first reading. My poor aunt had consented to be our volunteer reader. She cringed as she recited Old Testament verses about murderous and wicked men, followed by a reference to lopping off a dead dog’s head. Thoughtful words in memory of my mother who was a dog lover.
And then, as you’d warned, you read the Gospel according to Mark. The bit about the possessed man in shackles and chains, bruising himself with stones, and the evil spirits coming out, saying, “We are Legion, that’s our name because there are many of us,” followed indeed by Jesus forcing Legion into a herd of pigs and sending them over a cliff to drown in the ocean? Well, I started to sweat just a little. I mean, even you, Father, have to admit that’s a bit intense. My mom, a loyal supporter of organizations like the Humane Society, wasn’t really into stories about the deaths of a thousand formerly innocent, then suddenly possessed pigs. I’m sure my face flushed as I thought about the handful of Mom’s high school classmates present, probably questioning these reading selections. “Susan must have had a rocky relationship with her kids,” I imagined they’d whisper later.
Now, I do have to give you credit for appropriating the two horror readings into a eulogy. Yes, my mom is free now from the shackles of a stressful life. And she will never again be metaphorically stoned by cancer. And while you didn’t throw this in there, it was also pretty easy to imagine Legion as the many personalities of her ex-husband, my dad, from whom she is now truly free forever.
Still, I have to wonder if there wasn’t a less demonic Bible verse to add to the mix, for balance. Like, maybe something from Corinthians about love being patient and kind. That would have worked. It’s not like we can request a re-do service; there’s nothing more final than a funeral.
Have you used these readings at other funerals? Did you question at all your policy of “just using the readings of the day?” Are there no “back-up” readings, anything slightly more vanilla?
Or, did you know something we didn’t? Was my mom some form of the Antichrist? She did have a very protective black dog, as did Damien in The Omen. And that dog never loved any of us like it loved Mom.
Or, given our distant family history with the church, maybe my grandparents somehow slighted a previous pastor at their matrimony. Perhaps a forgotten tip at my mother’s christening. Maybe my Dad, Legion, attempted a curse on the building at my own baptism. He often loved stealing the stage like a macho Maleficent.
Or maybe you sensed there were many among the crowd who had left Catholicism, and the readings served as a warning. I noticed you pierced my atheist brother with your eyes, then insisted that he accept the crucifix at the burial. Maybe despite your easygoing nature, you remain a determined crusader? In our defense, though, Father, no one burst into flames upon entering your church, nor did the sky turn black, so any such worries about our collective salvation are probably baseless, if not a tad dramatic.
While I await your response, I’ll do my best to explain to others why I tear up at exorcism movies. “You do realize, this character’s demonic possession is just a metaphor for the all-too-common struggles of life, right?” I’ll sniff. “That verse about the pigs…always takes me back. Be free, Mom.”
In Simple Confusion,