I spend a bit of time in cemeteries. Perhaps that is why I noticed two recent minor news stories that were televised here, about death, grief and reverence.
The first was about the headstone of the grave of James Kingi, member of the Mongrel Mob gang. There had been objections to the city council about this headstone, which carried Mongrel Mob insignia. A woman whose relative was buried next to James felt the headstone was offensive. The council was considering a bylaw against offensive headstones.
Well, as a keen cemetery walker I could get offended about quite a few things. I could get offended about gravesites I consider tasteless or unfortunate. I could also consider the tightly held norms of the headstones – how men are remembered for their hobbies and women for their relationships, how religious sentiment (safe in the arms of the Lord) has given way to a more individualized and personal placement of toys, flowers and photos, how cultural diversity is expressed.
The other story was about the funeral of a young man called Troy Kahui. His friends showed the proper respect by doing burnouts in their cars outside the funeral home. Police were called and the young friends were arrested for endangering the public. Troy's mother, not a car enthusiast herself, was disappointed with the Police response. She felt his friends were giving him the sendoff he would have wanted. She was right.
What is reverence? It is one of the most mysterious and beautiful virtues, and one of my favourites. Reverence is full of surprises. It hides in plain sight. It is wonderfully accessible and yet often missed.
A definition comes from The Virtues Project:
'An awareness of the sacredness of life. Living with wonder and faith. Having a routine of reflection'.
In our society public grief is very limited, if you want to be socially acceptable. And we have little sense of the liminal - few rites of passage for example. So we can undergo our death rituals with not even a sniff of reverence, and we barely notice.
A young man dies of cancer. His funeral is large, as they usually are for the young, and mostly the preserve of the family. Lots of aunts, lots of hugs, little cousins, sandwiches, the crematorium booked for an hour and the next funeral party waiting as everyone leaves. At the 'after party' some uncles get ridiculously drunk, and there are more little cousins twirling in their fairy dresses.
Blessed reverence comes to his friends the next night. They meet up more or less accidentally. They light a fire on the beach where he used to surf. They smoke probably too much pot and cry more than they expect. They talk about him, only a little, but they feel his life as it streamed through their lives, and they feel it streaming still.
Ash was our half mad half grown kitten. Our dog Tigger found him on the street and played with him for a bit. Days later, he turned up at our place and Tigger invited him in. We failed to find his original owner, and so he stayed. He was part Abyssinian, and part moggy, and preternaturally bright. He wrecked our carpet and kept us up at night. He was a wanderer, and faithless with it. Tigger, however, adored him. They would play together for hours.
We had him only a couple of months. The second time he went missing, it was for days. In the end I rang the city council, and yes they had found him, dead on the side of the road. They take a note of the dead cats they find. I burst into tears and asked to come and get him. The woman on the phone gently and awkwardly explained that I could not come for him, that they didn’t, they umm, they, well, he wasn’t…that I needed to understand…
So there was no body. Nothing to fare well.
We all know how to farewell pets. When I was a child, our next door neighbour’s guinea pig Rusty died while they were away and I was looking after him. Even though he wasn’t ours, we buried him in their yard and laid flowers and said good bye. When my daughter was at kindergarten, Sapphire the kindergarten budgie died and everyone brought a flower for his grave. He was buried with due ceremony at the end of the morning class and the whole community was involved.
For Ash, we just had the memory.
Nevertheless we wanted to say good bye and to show him we cared, to ease his passing to the Happy Hunting Ground, which I now think is in Shamanic terms the Lower World. We dug a hole. We treated it like a grave. I put some food in it, and his brush, and we gathered with some friends. We all wrote on small pieces of paper things we liked about Ash, and we threw them into the hole. We filled in the hole. We sang. We walked away.
We have several graves of beloved pets in our yard, and I count Ash’s as one of them even though his body is not there. We knew him briefly but his life was the whole of his life, and he was worth memorialising. Love to Ash.