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.