It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the shops, which makes me even more determined not to think about it. A sobering and seasonally appropriate counterweight to this poisonous commercialism comes in the shape of a very gracious invitation from the superintendent to attend “open house” at the local municipal crematorium: “Members of the public will be able to have tours (maximum 20 people at a time) of the crematory and be able to walk around the grounds and chapel.” Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and all that.
On Sunday at 3pm in the chapel there is to be a lecture on “The development of cremation and the story behind crematoriums.” The lecturer has apparently “worked in funeral service in London since 1982 and has written extensively about funeral directing, embalming and cremation”.
Reading this impressive resumé I couldn’t help feeling that life had begun to imitate art. It rather reminded me of the mock-heroic mortician in Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satiric novel The Loved One: “Mr Joyboy had come to Whispering Glades with a great reputation. He had taken his baccalaureate in embalming in the Middle West, had for many years been a member of the Undertaking Faculty at an historic Eastern university … he had led a goodwill mission to the morticians of Latin America …” Following the tour of the crematorium, “tea, coffee and cake will be available”. I wonder if the cakes are baked on the premises? Reluctantly, for it would have made a nice Halloween treat, I reply to the invitation in the negative.
It is also the season of school half-term. The reduced rush-hour traffic on the roads give it away, even if one has no direct involvement in school life. In fact, I spent last Friday talking to Year 7s about the Sacrament of Confession – or “Reconciliation”, as they have been taught to call it. I don’t object to the rebranding as such: I just wish that something else from their catechesis could have received a similar emphasis for equivalent retention. For my talks were occasioned by the increasing incidence of children arriving from Catholic primary schools who had neither confessed nor been reconciled during the four years since they made their First Holy Communion – and, indeed, a few who hadn’t ever celebrated the sacrament.
When I first started hearing confessions regularly in Catholic secondary schools 14 years ago, there might have been one or two children in a class of 30 for whom this was the case. Now there are whole classes as the catechetical crisis envelops another generation of parents and we are obliged to waive any entrance criteria requiring more than the bare minimum of Catholic practice.
So it was that we had to start with some basics, such as the need to close the door when you come into a confessional. My question as to why this was of practical necessity elicited answers as random as “So the Devil can’t follow you in” and “So your sins can’t fly out.” Nonplussed, I realised that such ideas show clearly how the pseudo-mysticism of the Harry Potter cosmos soon fills the vacuum of inadequate catechesis. It was obvious that the possibility of kneeling down to confess your sins through a grill was a new one to most children.
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