The Rituals of Death as an Affirmation of Life

This past Saturday I had occasion to attend the funeral of Leo Balcer, the father of one of my childhood friends. This was a full Roman Catholic affair held at the local cathedral and was complete with an honor guard from the Knights of Columbus.
I refer to myself as a ‘Recovering Catholic’ and it had been nearly 15 years since I had set foot in a church. Also, as a practitioner or Zen I prefer to take my spirituality straight up; that is quietly and without ceremony. However, this experience did have a deep affect on me.
First, rather than being a somber affair, this was primarily a celebration of the life of the deceased. He was remembered as a loving and vibrant man with a gift for music. He was an accordion virtuoso who never missed an opportunity to share his gift and love of music. He was also a loving husband and father who raised a very successful family and through his music and genuinely loving personality had cultivated hundreds of friends.
What struck me was that rather than tears, everyone seemed to have a smile on their face. Everyone I met shared at least one story of Mr. Balcer that recalled his vibrant sense of humor, his love of music and his dedication, not only to his family, but to his neighborhood and the greater community around him.
Sure, everyone was sad at the loss of such a uniquely positive spirit, but the primary focus was on remembering his wonderful life and how it touched so many others in a tangibly positive way. Not a bad way to be remembered.
The second affect I experienced was to remember the power of ceremony. As I said previously, we Zen tend to look at ceremonies as distractions that focus attention away from the subject being celebrated; much like looking at the finger pointing at the moon, rather than moon itself.
However, during this funeral mass I realized that, when viewed properly, perhaps even as originally intended, ceremonies can serve as a vehicle to help focus the participants’ attention into the here and now.
By remaining in the moment and truly concentrating on the activities at the altar, I became aware that, even though this was a funeral for the dead, it was also a reminder for the living. We were all sharing in the same ritual at the same moment. We were sharing a (hopefully) spiritual experience that told us that we were still alive and had a responsibility to make the most of that gift. It was a wakeup call to the congregation to remember that life is short and transitory and so we have a responsibility to live in the moment and to use the breath we were drawing, in a positive and hopefully transformative way.
After hugging my friends and the family one more time, I left the church with a feeling of serenity and resolve.
I felt the serenity of my breath and being cognizant of and thankful for the present moment. A resolve to hug my family and let the people in my life know how special they are, how much they mean to me and how much they enrich my journey through this experience of life and time.
Thank you Mr. Balcer for your friendship in life and the valuable lesson you taught me in death. May you rest in peace.
Here’s hoping you have an intentionally great and life affirming day.
Rich

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