Burying my son

By Bernard Brandon Scott | 8.27.2018

Two days ago on Friday, August 24, 2018, my son, Jonathan Scott, was buried in New Orleans. Now on the third day I grieve by writing out my grief in reflections on that burial.

My son was a gentle, joyful, intelligent person. He owned F&F Botanica and Spiritual Supply. He cared for many people and the outpouring from the community was astounding. The church was full of people of many races, from all walks of life, including the Voodoo and Santeria communities, and the Holy Name Society. He was an active and devout Catholic. But mostly he was an enthusiastic syncretist. All manner of faiths and religious practices were welcome in his tent.

I was raised in the Catholic Church and taught at a Catholic Seminary for 16 years. Often in the past I drew great succor from the Roman liturgy, but the funeral mass for Jonathan for the most part left me empty, at times angry. The retreat from Vatican II is full tilt on in the funeral liturgy. They have not yet reached the Dies Irae, but it cannot be far behind. While the language about judgment and the angels in heaven are, I am sure, comforting for some, I left this fantasy a long time ago. This liturgy was only about the deceased in the most perfunctory, pro forma, fill-in-the-blanks way. The family and the mourners were irrelevant. This liturgy was about the Church.

Particularly galling, right before communion, the cantor read a statement explaining that “it is a consequence of the sad divisions in Christianity that we cannot extend to them (other Christians) an invitation to receive Communion.” “Catholics,” the statement continued, “believe that the Eucharist is an action of the celebrating community signifying a oneness in faith, life, and worship of the community. Reception of the Eucharist by Christians not fully united with us would imply a oneness which does not yet exist, and for which we must all pray.” Which is ecclesiastical jargon for FU. My son believed in communion but they turned this rite of the church symbolizing our unity into a symbol of disunity and fracture. This church is deeply abusive to its core.

But there were moments of deep comfort in the midst of grief. Michael Joncas’ beautiful hymn “On Eagle Wings” has that power of music to create the transcendent moment. The refrain gathered up my grief in a moment of comfort that produced a profound celebration of Jonathan’s life and the hope it creates.

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

The kiss of peace was another moment of grief and healing. My daughter sobbing out her grief for her lost little brother in my arms was liturgy granting that moment of peace in exactly the way it is supposed to.

My son loved New Orleans and its traditions, especially its music. It was only fitting that his funeral procession be led by a Jazz band with the mourners following in the second line New Orleans tradition. There was a moment in which the casket was carried to the back of the church to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” As the casket reached the entrance to the church door, the organ inside was playing Beethoven, while outside the jazz band began in a mournful dirge the strains of “A Closer Walk with Thee.” At first it was cacophony, but then the sound began to blend and produce a wonderful, weird harmony, creating yet another transcendent moment. Then the organ died away and the beat of the jazz band took over.

The procession to the cemetery, Saint Louis #3, across the street from the church, was one of the most profound liturgical experiences I have ever had. The music and rhythm expressed our sorrow and grief, as well as our joy and celebration of his life. It got our bodies walking in mournful stride and dancing in rhythm. That walk began the process of healing my soul. After the burial in a traditional New Orleans crypt, the band walked and danced us back with an upbeat celebration.

Liturgy can work, but not with worn out words that push a ruined fantasy like a narcotic. And it must celebrate and involve all of our body, it must be embodied, and bring us together, not push us a part.

I will always love and remember my son and in the music that he loved I will experience his wonderful, gentle, and joyful presence.

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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3 replies
  1. Colman G. Grabert says:

    Dear Brandon, Thank you for the email notice and the contributions from Mariah and yourself in your blog. I will write in reply to the email, but for now, know of my grieving with you, Mariah, Marilyn, Tanya,and Jonathan’s very large extended family. The emptiness of the perfunctory rites with the trite religious rhetoric got to me in your account of your own pain and anger. I’m sorry for all of that and glad that there were the compensating moments of great grace. Colman

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