Overlapping Realms of Faith in the USA – Essay 4
American cemeteries are cultural repositories. They remind us who we were. We have other archives, of course, art museums and libraries, architecture and archeology, to name four.
Late 20th century cemeteries are called such things as Memorial Lawn and the famous Forest Lawn Memorial Parks, and are clear of obtrusive tomb stones. As with funeral homes, the custom is to cosmetize and preserve the placid memory of loved ones who have “passed on”.
Early 20th century cemeteries have plain tombstones marking graves, engraved simply with names and dates. In death all are equal and removed from controversy, competition and travail. Military cemeteries epitomize this view of death.
19th century cemeteries tended, as with much of the Gilded Age, to elaborate on grief and glory. Those who could afford it enshrined loved ones under monuments that expressed how important they were, how desperately they would be missed and how lovingly remembered.
Funeral arrangements and religious services evolved with the times. Sadness, elicited or imaginary, with ritualized mourning and eloquent eulogies have given way to more subdued expressions. Along with the idea that death is a natural and inevitable result of life, the consensus has developed that something of us goes on into the beyond. It is a comforting (although somewhat tenuous) thought that a reunion awaits on the other side after we have shed the inconvenient aspects of this mortal body and our social aggravations, as well.
From the moment of death to the final disposition of the dead body, several actions are expected, anywhere in the world:
If any of these steps is impossible, the process is unsatisfactory and “closure” is incomplete. One of the shifts in American funeral practices over the last 50 years is the gradual move away from elaborate embalming and entombment toward “natural” disposal such as planting trees with the body beneath or accelerated decomposition such as cremation.
Every one of these events is subject to circumstances and cultural variation. None of them is dictated by the doctrines of any orthodox religious authority. [“Orthodox” in this sense refers to an established religious organization such as a branch of Judaism, a Christian denomination, or a sect of Buddhism, etc.] For example, compare how arrangements for an Anglican Episcopalian Igorot woman in mountainous Sagada, Philippines in 1945 would have differed from arrangements for American seaman in the South Pacific at about the same time, and compare those to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral on April 14, 1945 in the White House. Only the Book of Common Prayer service might have been the same.
In other words, funeral customs are not dictated in the same way church doctrine is. Only the formal religious service overlaps. The rest is part of some other set of dynamics controlled by other narratives and traditions. Most of that is under the heading of “folk faith”. Folk faith tells us whether close kinfolks ought to wash the body of a dead person or not, whether the body should be “consigned” in a shroud, wrapped in a cloth, or fully dressed. Folk faith tells us whether mourners should wear certain colored clothes and how to express grief acceptably. Almost everything that happens in an American funeral is under the umbrella of folk faith except possibly some core elements of the “life-passage commemoration” (i.e. the funeral service). Folk faith is a faith aspect of culture.
There are four overlapping realms of faith in America. They include orthodox religion, spiritual personal development regimens, American civil religion, and folk faith. Folk faith in the United States includes a wide range of generally held beliefs and narratives about life and death, common sense, and the natural order. Folk faith is about how to conceptualize and configure the nature of life and death in ways that integrate cognition, intuition and aspiration, and facilitate social flow. An article of folk faith may be agreeable to everyone of a given religion or region but not be mandated by any religious authority. Religious authority is expressed in various ways. For Anglicans (Episcopalians) in the USA, “our way” is verbalized in the prayer book. For Amish, the bishop has the presiding voice. For Christian Scientists and Quakers, let your conscience be your guide. For Roman Catholics there is an authority hierarchy with some issues directed by canon law and others by decrees or traditions. In all cases there is an area left over where folk faith predominates.
A second large area of American folk-faith, in addition to funeral practices and beliefs about death, is about how God operates in our lives day-to-day. God, in this context, may be either a person or a principle. An Internet posting a few days ago had this quote ascribed to Michael Horton (whitehorseinn.org): “Our American gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make your dreams come true.” There are lots of variations of this including expressions such as “God is in the driver’s seat,” and “Believe in hope, blessings are coming.” “Be patient,” one message advises, “God is sending help to mend all broken areas of your life.” The new American gospel may not have anything to do with God at all. What happens to you may be the result of karma; rewards and punishments are essentially deserved, although there may be an element of luck. Then there is prosperity theology that prescribes wealth as the product of strong faith and faithful obedience.
Another way to consider folk faith is as a cultural over-lay. It may be difficult to separate folk faith from the beliefs of an orthodox religion, but there are clues. Orthodox religions tend to be largely the same from one cultural context to the next. Calvinism is not much different in Korea or Scotland. Folk faith beliefs and practices vary from culture to culture. Folk faith tends to be more fluid and prone to fads and fanaticism. Folk faith may be, and often is, in service to other ends than human nature and destiny. For instance, the notion that menstruating women desecrate a sacred space effectively prevents women from equal status, thus preserving male privilege. Circumcision of boys, similarly, not only designates the boys as members of the tribe but also insures that only boys and their consorts and families have that designation. Folk faith may also have dual or multiple objectives, as in the case of the issue of abortion. As a principle in Roman Catholicism abortion and artificial birth control methods are prohibited because they are in contravention of the divine purpose for human sexuality which is exclusively for human reproduction. Anti-abortion colleagues who are not Roman Catholic may consider abortion wrong because they have agreed with the very recent argument (since the 1970s) that abortion is murder, whereas other forms of birth control are not. That there is a diverse rationale for the same moral injunction is a sign that the issue in question is a matter of folk faith in a cultural context.
It is with regard to morality that folk faith can turn abusive. Whereas religious organizations recognize that their authority extends only to those who are members and adherents, folk faith tends to expand moral codes to everyone within a geographical area. This tendency is historically potent in the USA. Three examples come to mind. (1) When the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) began, polygamy was reintroduced as a precept of the new religion. This, more than any other issue, incited outrage and led to persecution that drove the Mormons to Utah. (2) When colonial settlers moved into territory held sacred by native people, the taboos and practices particular to those holy precincts were over-ridden and ignored. This, more than any other issue, led to the genocidal Indian Wars of the 1870s. (3) When slaves were captured in Africa and transported to the Americas, the White Christian moral code was abrogated to permit slave owners to nullify slave families, breed slaves like animals, and of course to buy and sell them, all of which were prohibited with regard to free white Christians.
Finally, in folk faith, moral and cultural issues assume priority importance. In orthodox religion the main items of faith are metaphysical with ethics and ritual derived from that. There tend to be partisans, often fervent and aggressive, to particular issues in folk faith, but no outstanding leaders. Folk faith is derived from common-sense, widely-held beliefs that “everyone ought to agree to.” By its very inclusive nature and assumptions, orthodox religionists usually also agree with the issues. Because of their overlap most Americans do not bother to differentiate between one realm of faith and another and therein lays injustice, misunderstanding, and trouble.
[Expect the next article on “Overlapping Realms of Faith in the USA” on “Spirituality” in August. Previous articles in this series are: essay 1 www.kendobson.asia/blog/overlapping-realms-of-faith, essay 2 www.kendobson.asia/blog/american-civil-religion, and essay 3 www.kendobson.asia/blog/a-religion]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.