Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Ritual of Ashes

My favorite college professor passed away last week and I attended a memorial service for him at a local Episcopal Church yesterday.

Dr. Zeller was a philosopher, prankster, poet, and priest. He taught virtually every subject, so it seemed, starting at Emory in the 50's, then moving on to Mercer, where I was blessed enough to spend time with him, and finally at Reinhardt. He also served as a parish priest at what seemed like dozens of churches in his lifetime. He was the closest thing to a sage that I knew in college - a well of wisdom, wrapped in Hemingway's physique, Thomas Merton's thoughtfulness, and Kurt Vonnegut's mischief.

My most visceral memory of him is on Ash Wednesday, when he would walk around campus with a dark trace of ash on his forehead. Being raised Southern Baptist, this was as foreign to me as the burkas that the Muslim women at Mercer wore (and we had a lot of folks of different cultures and faiths - a very liberal environment for a private Baptist school. It was like Berkeley meets Billy Graham).

I took geography with Dr. Zeller and, prior to my class with him, I was one of those folks who thought you needed a passport to go to New Mexico. When he was done with me, I was a human GPS. You see, each Friday, there was a test. There were only two grades: 90 or above was passing. Below 90 was an F. The good news was, if you got an F, you got to take the test over...and over...and over...until you got above 90. Everyone who took his geography class got an A that quarter. We also spent more after school time retaking quizzes than we collectively spent at the nearby Waffle House all year. Yet, no one ever resented the re-tests. There was a contagious passion for learning that Dr Zeller emitted. He had a personal story about almost every country we studied. His traveling shoes had more wear and tear than James Michener's suitcase. He marveled us with stories about cuisine, currency, and culture.

That's why, after spending upwards of two hours at a funeral service, I felt sorta empty leaving the church. Here was a man whose life touched so many students and parishioners, and yet, to experience his memorial service, you'd think that "fill in the blank" had just died.

I've been to AME services, where grief-stricken mourners hurl themselves on the open casket, I've been to Baptist services where the death of a loved one is merely a vessel for the minister to try to scare people into an old-fashioned soul savin', but this service went to the other extreme for me: impersonal detachment. We sang hymns, listened to long choral anthems, knelt and genuflected like we were in a Catholic aerobics class, experienced a full-blown Eucharist, and listened to a dozen or so readings from the Book of Prayer. Only one man spoke about the man who'd touched so many lives, and his homily on Dr. Zeller was the shortest part of the marathon ceremony.

I'd wanted more for my friend. He knew he was dying, and he chose many components of the service himself. As an Episcopal priest, I'm sure this service was just what he wanted, so I feel rather callous complaining about it. I actually went to the service looking forward to celebrating a life, and left feeling rather empty and sad. To me, a funeral should be just the opposite - you go in with pain, and you leave with comfort.

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting pinatas and cake - just taken aback at the formality of it all. As my Mercer friend said to me halfway through the service, "I don't think God would mind if they maybe talked about Dr. Zeller a little bit during all this..."

As the service began to clock in around the two hour mark, we were led outside the church where the family and closest friends grabbed a handful of dirt and sprinkled it over Dr Zeller's ashes. Only then did I feel like his memory was truly served. Only then did it seem we were telling him so long. Only then did I see the man with a cross made of ash smeared across his gentle brow. Outside the church, away from the organ and the choir. Just silence, tears, hugs, and handfuls of earth over ash, scattered in the only ritual that actually felt appropriate all morning.

I'm not sad my friend is gone. He lived a more full, rich life than most anyone I've ever known. He was four score and two. He was ready. I'm just a tad sad that his send-off felt more like any given Sunday and less like the very unique, personable service that such a unique, personable man is deserving of.

But then, who am I to say. The whole pinata and cake thing sounds just about right to me for my memorial service. That, and someone singing Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

Maybe that's the service Dr. Zeller's getting in the afterlife, wherever that may be.

He'd know. Not because he was a priest, but because he knew his geography so damn well.