The stational nature of funeral rites

I’m sure many have been reflecting on the California fires, and in particular what has surrounded the death and obsequies of Cory Iverson, the firefighter who died.

It is generally acknowledged that the paradigm for all our sacraments and major liturgies is the RCIA. They are all stational, they all move from one point to another, both physically and metaphysically. My wife and I have been discussing this, and we think that people have to a large extent lost a sense of progression with rites in general, and certainly with the rites of Christian funerals. You might even say that we have lost our sense of procession. And yet Cory Iverson’s body was brought with great ceremony in what was termed a procession, from the place where he died to the Ventura County medical examiner’s office. His lengthier cortège from Ventura to San Diego was described by the media as “a funeral procession”. In a culture where bodies are often hurriedly taken away for cremation, such processions are increasingly rare. Churchyards in close proximity to the church are also not often met with these days; and yet there is something highly symbolic in the solemn procession of a coffin from church to cemetery, perhaps causing traffic to halt while the mourners walk along the road, making a statement about how we show respect to our dead.

And respect is a key part of this. We want to show honour and respect to the dead, but the opportunity to do so is not always there. In the case of Cory Iverson, it would be impossible for all those who wish to do so to cram into the church for his funeral, and it is unknown whether TV cameras will be present for the entire service (rather than providing only brief clips on newscasts). And so a multitude of people stood at the roadside, ordinary folk who wanted to pay their respects to a brave man. Thousands of people joined clusters of firefighters on bridges over freeways honouring their deceased colleague, and a timetable was produced so that people would know not only the route but the timings when the coffin was expected to pass. This procession was itself in effect an extended funeral rite.

Combine that with the actual processional movement, and you have a phenomenon which seems to demonstrate that people instinctively understand how stational our rites of passage actually are, how movement is involved in them. (The same kind of thing happened with the procession of Princess Diana from Westminster Abbey to her resting place, with mourners hurling bouquets of flowers at the hearse as it drove solemnly past.) Additionally, in the face of the California fires, many have felt helpless, but this act of respect has given them something that they could do to show solidarity and humanity. You might even say that those at the roadside have been praying, both for the repose of Iverson’s soul and for his family, friends and colleagues who mourn his death. Certainly many prayers have been expressed online.

Anthropologically, processions are important for us. In church, apart from the Communion procession, it is rare that the whole assembly will get out of its seats to move to another place. And so we watch the ministers processing on our behalf. What is important is that we follow them with our eyes, and with our hearts. We cannot all go and stand around the crib while it is being blessed in a few days’ time, and yet, like the shepherds, we too can “go to Bethlehem” as the ministers move there. The same applies to Cory Iverson. We cannot accompany him to his last resting place, but through the medium of helicopter-mounted TV cameras we are given a chance to be with him in spirit. Let us thank God for that, and for the sacrifice he made. Let us, too, pray for him and for all those who mourn him.

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