Do you remember that word? Obsequies. It is a strange word, the plural of obsequy, a word I have honestly never used or written before in my life. Related words are obsequious, sequel, sequence, and others. The ob- in the word is a prefix meaning over or toward. The sequi- root means to follow. Thus obsequies are that which follow an event, in this case a funeral.
Many of us first read it in tenth grade English, the class where many of us first read a lot of things. It is from the Fifth Act of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The text is below, taken from one of my favorite scenes in literature, that of the Grave Yard. The foolishness between Hamlet, Horatio, and the gravediggers is followed by the very serious funeral service itself, of Ophelia, Hamlet's lady friend and sister to Laertes, who questions the priest about the funeral service, which Laertes feels is lacking. His words are exchanged with that of the priest leading the funeral procession.
What ceremony else?
Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warrantise: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o'ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.
Must there no more be done?
No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
You've probably thought no more about such obsequies, or even the word obsequies, since your last reading or most recent viewing of the play, or perhaps since Tenth Grade English. Yet, the headline on the front page of today's Courier-Journal Metro Section is about just that, obsequies. Playing the part of Shakespeare's First Priest is Father Jeffrey Leger, pastor of Saint Catherine Church, at right, in Nelson County, Kentucky's cradle of Catholism. Father Leger has sent a letter to area funeral directors informing them he must participate and approve funerals performed for Catholics in a Catholic church, and that they will strictly follow Canon Law and liturgical practices, something that many funerals have slipped away from. Fr. Leger specifically is concerned about certain types of readings, the music used, and eulogies spoken, which have no legitimate place in a Catholic Mass. Non-biblical readings, some recorded music, and poetry and prose offered on behalf of the deceased have a place, but not during the Mass, according to Fr. Leger. He suggests such diversions from the text should take place at the Vigil, usually held the night before.
Father Leger is also taking the strong position of forbidding a Mass for those Catholics who have not been in attendance at Mass, or others who have strayed from Catholic teaching. He used the words "notorious apostates, heretics, schismatics, and other manifest sinners." Rather strong language. He will allow some of these people a Rite of Christian Burial, but not the Mass itself. He is also restricting who can preside at a funeral Mass, requiring that he be the presiding priest of a Mass at his church, even if the deceased had as a friend or family member a fellow priest.
And for such actions, Fr. Leger and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville are being sued by a New Haven funeral director, Ron Rust, our modern day Laertes, except Laertes accepted the words of the priest; Mr. Rust's response to Fr. Leger's action was to file a lawsuit in the Nelson Circuit Court.
Lawsuits and Courthouses are often the final refuge of those who feel they've been harmed by another person's or group of persons' actions. Ending up in court is usually the last place one who feels they've been wronged want to end up. But, there are times that such an action is necessary, when the wheels turned by those in charge of events turn them so as to impend upon the beliefs or even livelihood of another. To use Mario Savio's famous words from December of 1964, "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" Funeral director Rust has used the filing of a lawsuit as a means of putting his bodies upon the gears and wheels of the Hierarchic Government known as the Roman Catholic Church.
I have a reputation in some circles, but not others, for adhering to rules, adhering to processes. In this matter with Fr. Leger and Mr. Rust, I have a divided mind. As many of you know, I have been questioning some of the practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church for a little over five years, and I've been questioning my allegiance to the same. I've been a member of the church since May, 1979. Since 2003, I've been on a journey, seeking to find a different way of practicing my beliefs and faith in God, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, and in humanity. It has not been an easy road - it has frankly been very difficult - and I have not yet made the decision - or any decision - within the timeframe I had originally allotted to do so. I may grant myself another five years to find an answer.
But, in this matter, Fr. Leger is correct - the practices he seeks to end are in opposition to Church Law, although they are customs more honored in the breach than the observance. In recent times, I've attended two funeral masses which, apparently, would not have met with Fr. Leger's approval. At the Mass for the mother of my friend Morgan Ransdell, one of the celebrants was Fr. Jim Lichtefeld who was a relative of the deceased, although he may not have been the main celebrant, which would have brought him under Fr. Leger's concern. There were also a number of eulogists at her funeral. At another funeral, that of my late Uncle Don Noble in 2005, ironically presided over by the same Fr. Lichtefeld, two eulogies were offered, one by the deceased's brother-in-law and the other by me, on behalf of my father who was too overcome to do so. Fr. Leger is seeking to end such personal touches in the name of Church Law.
So my questioning isn't really of Fr. Leger's actions. He is doing what he is trained and required to do as a priest. He is following law - he is following a process. And while I tend to agree with him that sometimes such additions tend to bastardise the Mass, there are other rules and regulations of the Church which I find anti-Christian to be very honest, which thus makes me a heretic I suppose. The early church and indeed the sacred scripture which have come down to us in the Bible offered two sets of commandments, or rules. The Ten Commandments in the Old Testament cover a multitude of sins with the very well known "Thou shalt nots". But, for Christians, that is followers of Christ, which the Roman Catholic Church purports to do, Jesus, for whom the religion is named, offered only two. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark he said quite simply, to Love the Lord and to Love your Neighbor. He emphasized the briefness of his response with "All the Law and the Prophets" are fulfilled in these two commandments.
Thus, when one believes a law is wrong, they have two avenues of relief. One is to change the believed-wrong law from within by infusing oneself into the organization to the extent that one can thereby offer changes to the offending canon. The other is to remove oneself wholly from the jurisdiction of the offending law's controlling authority. I've been down both roads in different situations with different parties. Neither is easy and both can be time consuming and costly.
I'm not sure which is correct or if there is a correct solution. But, there must be a solution. We are a people of compromise and we have a destiny as humanity to always proceed, always make ways of moving forward. An obsequy, in its ancient etymological sense taken from the Latin, is just that - the compliant dutiful service of moving forward. So we shall.