Caveats: The less cheesy (and original) title for this post is ‘How to Do a Funeral’. But I couldn’t resist the connection to one of my favourite movies. 🙂 And really, only three of the four faiths involved are organised at all. The fourth, which I like to call Eco-Universalist, though is easily recognisable if unstructured and codified. Its themes of universal spirituality, the sacredness of nature and love as well as its high priests such as Gibran and Thoreau speak to the spiritual needs of many post-church and un-churched folk. So to me it is as valid as any other path.
I attended the funeral on Thursday and have only now recovered. It will forever serve to provide me a template of how a funeral should be. Much of this stemmed from the wonderful and amazing person the funeral was for, Clarissa. A fellow member of the Phendheling Tibetan Buddhist Centre I was only briefly blessed by her presence over the last few years. Struggling with extreme ill-health for over a dozen years, she shone with light, love, patience and utmost compassion.
For many years Clarissa was dependent on a portable respirator for every second of her life. As we meditated on compassion and love for all sentient beings, the steady click-clack of the machine which gave her life would impress upon me how much I take for granted this holy breath. It is not for nothing that the Hebrew word for breath, Ruach, is the same as for sacred spirit, life, and will; in fact any holy and invisible force that makes its presence visible in the material world.
The service was conducted by Fr Brian McCoy, a Jesuit. Now in my experience there are often ‘good’ (read social justice) Jesuits and ‘bad’ Jesuits (kinda like the Sith). Fr Brian, a tireless and compassionate worker with aboriginal peoples is one of the good ones. A personal friend of the families he held the afternoon with grace and deep presence. His clerical get-up for the day reflected aboriginal colours and motifs.
We began the service with a Noongar smoking ceremony and didgeridoo playing as the elders of the families, Noongar first, led us into the chapel. In a few short minutes with some simple actions we had honoured the Land, the ancient peoples, the ancestors and the elders – something that is rarely done in modern funerals. This provided the ground and bedrock for the rest of the service, and for me the presence of an awakened Land and the ancestors was as strong as the pain of the bereft.
Throughout the service there was much grief and wonderfully the men in Clarissa’s families cried as openly and as uncontrollably as the women. All the grief though was held and transformed as we listened to the stories of her life and readings from her spiritual traditions. Clarissa’s families are Christian but as an adult she chose Tibetan Buddhism as her depth spiritual path. The readings from these two great traditions were interwoven with Eco-Universalist readings into a seamless unity focused on love.
We heard of Clarissa’s vow and role as a Bodhisattva, a Being dedicated to continually alleviating the suffering of others, lifetime after lifetime – all this she consciously embraced as she suffered so much herself. I inwardly recited Tara mantras during Buddhist prayers and readings focused on compassion. And we heard those oft repeated, but forever young, pieces from St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
We each blessed Clarissa’s coffin with holy water, sprinkled with a sprig of Rosemary for remembrance, a nice touch, and then followed the procession to the grave site. Here again, Fr McCoy blessed and asked the sacred Land to receive the body of Clarissa back into her being. The focus of love and attention carried us to a final act where we all dropped soil into her grave, saying our farewells, giving our final blessings.
For me, the day was both wrenching and wonderful. I seemed to have few boundaries and felt the grief intensely, even though I really did not know Clarissa too well. I did my blessings, brought forth my love and my traditions, but really it was I who was blessed by her. And so it was extremely fitting that one of the final readings, recited on Clarissa’s behalf, came from the great Buddhist Master Shantideva:
To the Buddhas residing in all directions
With my palms pressed together I make this request
Please continue to shine the lamp of Dharma
For living beings lost and suffering in the darkness of ignorance.
And until all those who are sick
Have been cured of their illness,
May I become their medicine,
Their doctor, and their nurse.
May I be an inexhaustible treasury for the poor and destitute.
May I be everything they might need
Placed freely at their disposal.
May I become a protector for the protectorless,
A guide for those who travel on the road,
And, for those who wish to cross the water,
May I become a boat, a ship, a bridge.
Now my life has borne great fruit
My human life has attained great meaning;
Today I am born into the lineage of Buddha
And have become a Bodhisattva.
And so she has…
May the Mound keep her and bless her.