Uncle Joe’s Unveiling: Thoughts on a Good Lay-Led Worship Service

Brothers Aaron, Joe & Reuben
Brothers Aaron, Joe & Reuben
I like to call out and celebrate instances in our various institutions and practices where we take a step in that direction. Religion and education tend to be two of the “lagging” institutions in terms of adapting partnership practice, so that made the “unveiling” ceremony I attended Sunday, a breath of fresh air and a joy to participate in.

This was a service for the “unveiling” of the marker on my partner Sally’s Uncle Joe’s crypt at the Culver City, CA cemetery where he is interred. In the Jewish tradition, this event usually happens no later than one year after the death and funeral, the previous event that I wrote about in my June 26, 2009 post “On the Occasion of the Passing of Uncle Joe”.

There was no rabbi present or other “memorial service professional” to create and lead the service. Instead, Joe’s daughter Judy put the service together, consulting with a rabbi to get some ideas and recommendations. It was short but powerful, and at times provoking tears and sobs, which I always feel is a key indicator that a worship service has been effective in its intent. In this case it was memorializing a person who had lived 82 years, been a husband and parent of five kids (all in attendance) for six of decades, served in World War II and Korea, and adored his seven grandchildren as well.

The service started with a prayer read by Joe’s oldest brother Aaron, followed by all participants singing (with Joe’s son Michael playing guitar) the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes (traditionally ascribed to King Solomon) popularized as a folk standard by Pete Seeger and covered by the 1960’s folk band “The Byrds” as “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)”.

Joe in life was always a dashing and charismatic figure, never one to be shy to chime in or even steal the show. In this instance it seems, even nine months in the grave, he upstaged the assemblage. While all of us sang the song’s lyric, “A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together”, the covering on his crypt’s marker managed (without even being accidentally bumped by one of the participants) to pop off with a clatter onto the ground (well before it was scheduled to be removed at the end of the service). The metaphor was so obvious it made two dozen sad people grin or even giggle for a moment. Joe loved to sing, often leading the singing in life, and though dead he seemed to somehow have to join the song.

This was followed by some well thought and delivered extemporaneous comments by the middle of the three brothers, my own father-in-law Reuben, and various responsive and other readings by Judy’s four siblings.

The particularly powerful conclusion to the service was Judy’s brother Michael, an accomplished singer-songwriter himself, singing Cat Steven’s “Father and Son” (A nice live version on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jek6iP6AuAQ) and accompanying himself on guitar. This song always affects me, and on this occasion, given the many-faceted narrative of a relationship of over 50 years between Michael and his dad, it pierced my heart and the tears flooded uncontrollably from my eyes (and even now as I type these words) and many others in attendance.

The whole thing was over in little more than a half-hour, had fully engaged all the participants, including moments of laughter and tears… an inspired and inspiring event. And getting back to my thoughts at the top of this piece, was my added joy of seeing such a service created and led by regular folks (family members in this instance) without the need of a “professional” to officiate. It was a small step forward in the transition from hierarchical to a more egalitarian religious observance, and the larger human evolution to more of a partnership orientation.

I congratulated Judy after the service, and shared with her that I had designed and led the two memorial services for my mom, who had died in 2006. I had chosen to do her services “Quaker-style”, with me as the moderator and all the participants in a circle, with the chance to speak extemporaneously. I picked two of my mom’s favorite songs to be sung as the “hymns” by the attendees: Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and as the service’s conclusion, “I Did it My Way”.

I feel it is important that we regular folk – family, citizens, etc. – attempt to rise to every possible occasion using our own means and wisdom, and only calling in the experts when absolutely needed. That is what partnership and the “circle of equals” is all about, as we continue our evolution and move away from the hierarchical institutions of the past.

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