I think funerals are, probably, one of the harder things to contend with when it comes to those of us who are from “alternative” religious choices. I mean, many of us are recreating a religion that had an established (if we know it) way in which to honor the dead. In some instances, they had a whole host of things to see to the souls of those who have passed and how to honor those souls after they had finally gone into… well whatever direction they may go into. In a modern context, especially when compared to how the ancient Egyptians went about their business, the amount of things done for the deceased can be rather paltry. Ancient Egyptians had seventy days of mourning, funeral corteges, and spells to see the deceased on while many of the funeral services that I can recall are a two-day affairs that end up with a meal in a restaurant, reminiscing. But I think, honestly, what makes it harder is not knowing whether or not you should ever bother doing anything within your own religious context especially for people who may know not, may not understand, or were staunchly religious in their own rights.
So where do we draw the line? At one point is it okay to do what we want versus what they want? When will it be okay to say a thing or three about them in our religious context, either publicly or privately? How much lip service, if any, must we pay to their religious contexts? As a matter of form, of course, each response to these questions is going to be highly dependent not only on the individual who will be attending said funeral services for people whom they cared for, but also based on what they know about the deceased and how the individual feels that the deceased would react to such things.
This, of course, comes up for me because this week, I had to attend funeral services for the significant other’s grandmother’s boyfriend. He was a well-established member of the family long before I arrived on the scene and everyone loved him. He took very good care of their ailing grandmother, his stories were hilarious, and he knew everyone. He was a very well connected kind of guy and not just because of his Italian background, if you catch my drift. And his stories were fucking awesome.
J will be missed.
Of course, with the announcement that he had passed, I began thinking, as I always do, about how I could or would celebrate his life in my own way. I think, again, this is kind of common for people such as myself with an “alternative” religion, especially in the context of someone that you truly cared about. We want to pay them homage in the best way we know how to, which often tends to be an association from our religious background. There is something within each of us, at the notice of a death, which seems to say, “I need to give respect to this person and I think I should do so within my own religious context.” Just with writers, we each go to what we know, which tends to be based on our individual recreations of ancient religions and how they handled death and the afterlife.
How do you provide for them in your own religious context, though? Is it even okay to do anything for them in your religious context? If they were overly religious in their own way – and J was, as evidenced by the St Anthony and St Christopher’s medals, the rosary, and the Catholic Mass for his funeral rites – do you bother to try to do anything outside of what their final wishes were? Or if they were an atheist, is it okay to do something within your religious observances? Is a[n American-style] wake/viewing and funeral enough to make you feel like you’ve done something effectively for them? Or do you attempt to incorporate them, either in minor or in major, with your own religious practice’s observances?
When I attempted to incorporate my deceased family members into my Kemetic akhu observances, I found myself getting glimmers of strong emotions that were clearly negative: disinterest, dislike, discouragement. I was a little surprised by it. One would assume that they would like to be honored in some way, but the more I ended up trying to Kemetic the practices into a cohesive way that worked for me, I found that I was getting fewer and fewer emotional pings but the ones that I did sense were more and more intense. And they were all incredibly negative. It didn’t take a long time for me to realize [for once] that they didn’t like it.
It didn’t dawn on me until I attempted to try it out that they wouldn’t appreciate what I was doing. I thought that since they cared about me and probably would like to be remembered more than just merely in passing that they would tolerate what I was doing, but I was wrong. I was going into this with a basis that my needs and wants figured more prominently than their needs and wants. I was also dismissing their own religious backgrounds and beliefs. I was thinking that my own, with its rich plethora of akhu veneration was more important than their own. In effect, I was going into this with the belief that I was more important. While I still think I’m pretty important, I don’t think my wants and desires really should overpower them or their desires on the subject matter, whether they are alive and kicking or not.
Since this was the impression I got when it just came to visiting family graves, it dawned on me that I may find the same discouraging emotional pings when it came to funerals. I had thought, a few years back, that I would create some big and encompassing super-rite that had to do with funerals. And then, I scaled it back to something small and minor after having gone to one and then I scaled it back to nothing at all when I realized that, well, maybe the deceased wouldn’t appreciate what I was trying to do. That idea came to me when I was sitting beside TH who was saying goodbye to his paternal grandfather, who was staunchly Catholic. This came to me again, last year, when I was sitting beside my son and TH while they both said goodbye to TH’s maternal grandfather. And by J’s funeral services this week, it had solidified to make me realize that what I may have wanted to do wasn’t necessarily in the deceased’s best interest.
This reminded me that, in many instances, the funeral services aren’t really for the deceased anyway. It’s possible that many of them go into the afterlife, knowing full well what will happen after they depart because they already have it planned. But, I think that, it’s mostly something that is set in place for those who are still alive. It’s a final good-bye for the living to the deceased. It’s the close of the final chapter, but instead of a drawn out ending that leaves the reader hanging, it’s the act of tying up of all the loose ends in the plot devices within the novel before it. The ending may not seem satisfactory to the reader for one reason or another, but that is precisely what the funeral services are for. It’s the act of goodbye for those whom still live, whether they want to say those farewells or not.
And while I, too, need something that will close out the end of the novel, and would prefer it in a frame of reference that makes more sense to me – Kemetic trappings, specifically – I realized that it may be a little presumptuous of me to do so. I’m not the only person looking to say farewell to the deceased, after all, and my religious persuasions are still very much in the minority. Of course, this made me wonder how it would be possible to take something for myself in the final goodbye scene of the deceased as well as to be respectful, not only of their wishes, but of the desires of the people around me. The funeral services that I have attended the last few years didn’t truly impact me on an emotional level, though they obviously impacted people to whom I care about deeply.
What if, though, I was attending a family member’s funeral? Would the idea of keeping my own religious observances and desires to myself still hold? Obviously, I haven’t been able to put this into practice, but I have to keep thinking back to those negative emotional pings I was receiving from my deceased relatives. If they don’t like it after they had already passed, why in the world would they tolerate it when I am saying goodbye? Again, it comes down to a respect for their wishes and the wishes of everyone around me. The hiding of a religious practice that isn’t mainstream and is oft misunderstood by outsiders also plays a part in all of this. While I know that TH’s family would support me if I decided to do something more, my own family wouldn’t. And frankly, the idea of arguing with them or even explaining something that they won’t understand (either purposefully or not) doesn’t really appeal to me, especially in regards to funeral matters and the acts of saying goodbye to someone I care(d) about.
But in this particular case, just like with the funerals in the preceding years that I’ve gone to, I stayed my hand, my lips, and paid attention to the religious observances. I said the Lord’s Prayer, I offered the refrain during the Catholic Mass, I took Communion, and I did the sign of the cross at the appropriate times. I knelt on the prie dieu (when I wasn’t holding on to my nephew to keep him quiet). It seemed to me that, even though these trappings were not my own, it made more sense to do them to honor the deceased. It felt as though it would have been more disrespectful to sit or stand, a blank look upon my face and glazed eyes during the service. And at the very crux of the matter, I thought of that popular saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
I think though, in some instances at least, it may be okay in order to do something that makes sense within our own religious framework. While paying homage to the religious observances of the deceased is very important in my opinion, I also think that we can’t shy away from our own thoughts on the matter, either, especially when it comes to family members whose deaths may severely impact us emotionally and mentally. I think that, in all honesty, denying our religious beliefs in any way, especially when it comes to saying farewell to someone whom we cared for deeply, would be a sin against ourselves and would be against ma’at. So, how in the world do you connect the two separate worlds together, especially if you’re in hiding, so that you are respecting the observances of the family and friends of the deceased, the deceased themselves, but you’re also respecting your own religious observances as well?
On the down low, of course.
My wearing ankh imagery isn’t outside of the norm for me. I wear an ankh necklace daily and I switch into my ankh earrings also rather regularly. So, it wasn’t outside of normal parameters for me to be wearing either. But in my own heart of hearts, I was wearing them in homage to the deceased and his passing from this life into the next. The ankh is one of the most potent and obvious symbols of the ancient Egyptian religion. It is often shown in tomb art in the hands of deities associated with the afterlife, who are conferring the gift of life onto the one who has passed. They are also amulets used to denote strength and health, two things that the person who has saying farewell to the deceased would need in abundance. By wearing these symbols, I was hoping that J would be transformed into the afterlife of his choosing (I would assume it was the Catholic form, but one never really knows) and my wearing that jewelry was my covert way of aiding and abetting.
A few days before the funeral, I mentioned it on my Tumblr and wrote the following deceased offering formula to J:
An offering given by the Daughter of Power to J-Wesir. That she may give a voice offering of bread, beer, oxen, birds, alabaster, clothing, and every good and pure thing upon which a god lives. For the ka of the revered, J, True of Voice.
I was keeping in line with the offerings that the ancient Egyptians would have provided to their deceased by remarking that I was giving a voice offering of all of the super awesome things that the gods really liked back in the day. (And maybe even J’s God would like, too? I mean, I can’t think that the Christian deity would like clothes but maybe He’d like pure things, pretty things, and food?) And I ended it with denoting that J was “true of voice.” This particular aspect is a form of heka all its own so that he will be transfigured into the next life of his choosing, no doubt about it. This was the only thing I did that was overtly and obviously Kemetic in origin. I didn’t want to encroach too much but I also didn’t want to ignore the feeling that I needed to say goodbye with a frame of reference that works for me.
As much as it does suck that we may be unable to do things how we would prefer, we also have to remind ourselves that we’re still very much a minority when it comes to other religions out there. And it will be some time, if any, before we start seeing more Kemetic flavored or styled funeral rites. In the meantime, some of us may feel the need to integrate what we think would be in the deceased’s best interest with the desires of the deceased and their family members, especially in regards to respecting their own religious observances. But above all, being respectful towards the deceased should be foremost in our minds when attempting to figure out how to surreptitiously incorporate our desires and religious leanings into our own farewells.