Monday, November 13, 2006

Armenian Funerals

I went to my second Armenian funeral last week, for the 21 year old deacon who died. The first Armenian funeral I attended was for my grandfather, and it was an Armenian priest that my family had flown into town to do the service. (Hayr Simeon is a great guy, by the way, and I love his philosophy on getting people involved with the church. If you live in the Providence, RI area, you should definitely check out his church.)

The viewing was on Wednesday night, and the funeral was on Thursday. Wednesday night wasn't really a "viewing," though, as the casket was closed, and it was mostly people talking about this young man (some in Armenian, and some in English), like would happen at a regular funeral. Even the Archbishop was there. The church was PACKED both Wednesday night and Thursday morning. I sang with the choir on Thursday- We sang just Kahanayk and Ee Verin Yeroosaghem.

Ee Verin Yeroosaghem is probably one of my favorite hymns in the Armenian Church. The translation is:

In the Heavenly Jerusalem, in the abode of angels, where Enoch and Elijah live dove-like in old age, being worthily resplendent in the Garden of Eden; O merciful Lord, have mercy upon the souls of our departed brethren.

The imagery is so beautiful- angels, doves, resplendent gardens... it's a reminder of beauty in an otherwise pretty gloomy service.

There is a big difference between funerals for old people (like my grandfather) and young people (like this 21 year old deacon). You expect old people to die; that is what happens when you are old. You don't expect young people to die; you expect them to graduate from college, travel, buy first houses, get married, have babies, get promoted, etc. Funerals for young people are shocking to the system. Even if it's not your first funeral for a young person, it's still pretty horrifying. Just seeing all his young friends, only about 5-7 years younger than I am, going through this was just really upsetting. There was a huge HUGE presence of the Homenetmen; they had the flags of all the local chapters, plus another one from elsewhere in the state, on display by the coffin, all the scouts were there in their uniforms, and they had draped a Homenetmen flag on his coffin.

Almost all the service was in Armenian again, except for one of the priests (the former priest of this church), who graciously translated his speech into English. This was much appreciated by me (and I am sure by the deceased non-Armenian friends), not only b/c it meant that I would understand what was going on, but because I didn't really know this young man, so it was nice to hear comments from people who did know him.

I was fine until the end, when his pallbearing young friends went to get the coffin. No one should have to be a pallbearer for their friend at that young of an age. It is just not fair. I started crying, and his mother lost it. The family was practically restraining her from throwing herself on the coffin. She was screaming and crying. Naturally. At first I had kind of a negative reaction to this, but then I thought, "If there is ever at time when screaming and bawling is warranted, it's now. Why should she try to hold everything in? Let her scream and cry." I told my husband this, and he said that he was reminded of the show Six Feet Under- whenever anyone at a funeral starts to lose it, David will hurry them off to the private room off to the side so they don't make anyone uncomfortable, and Nate gets mad, because it is all so fake to stifle grief like that. Death is sad. Let people be sad.

There was a lot of emphasis in the services on "he is in a better place now." This always annoys me, because this is supposed to make me feel BETTER? I am selfish- I want (whoever) here with me NOW. I told my husband that if I die early, my funeral is not to be entirely in Armenian, and that none of this "better place" crap.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Women in the Church

Like other Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church, the Armenian Apostolic church does not allow women to become priests. Women/girls are also technically not allowed up on the altar, BUT one of the churches I go to has a little girl who occasionally is up there helping, and has girls do the readings sometimes, etc. I don't see any adolescent girls or grown women up there, but considering there are very few youths/young adults of either gender who participate in church, even just by going, so it may not be an age thing.

I surprise myself, but the fact that women are not allowed to be priests does not bother me (although I sometimes think it should...). I think this is due to two things: 1) the nature of the duties of the priesthood and 2) the nature of church life.

First, the nature of the priesthood. As far as I can tell, priests in the Armenian church perform many of the same functions of their counterparts in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, except for one. Sermons. There are still sermons in the Armenian church, but they are significantly shorter and less important than they are in, say, my parents' Southern Baptist church. That is, the Armenian church is NOT about preaching. Some priests are naturally good at giving sermons, and some are not, but you don't have to be especially good at them to succeed as a priest. This means that if someone is called to spread the word of God, or to teach others, etc., there are other venues to do that, probably BETTER venues for doing that, than becoming a priest. The choir serves an incredibly important function in the service- I would argue that they are just as important to the service as the altar boys, so I don't exactly feel that I am being excluded from participating actively in the service the way I might in a Roman Catholic or Protestant church where the hymns are just nice little additions to the service.

There is also complete acknowledgement of the role that women play in generally sustaining the church. Well, this is the case at the two churches that I attend regularly, anyway. Maybe it isn't in other churches. Everyone knows that they might not be up on the altar, but really, there would be no churches without them. The women are the ones who run the church office, teach Sunday School and Armenian School, and coordinate fundraisers, among other things. At a recent Armenian festival at another local church that I don't attend, my husband and I noticed the women running around cooking and serving food (the main way that the festival raised money was by selling dinner!), while the men stood around in black, wearing black vests with SECURITY on the back in big white letters, smoking cigars or drinking. Not kidding. My husband wondered if the festival really needed that much security. I said that probably it was the only way the women could get their husbands and grown sons to help out. "Oh, you can work security!" In both the churches I attend, the Parish Councils have women, so they contribute to running the church as well. The Armenian Church even has a special title for the Der Hayr's wife- Yeretzgin. Jews also have a similar title for a Rabbi's wife- Rebbetzin. Protestant churches don't have this- there is no real recognition of the support and sacrifices that the wife of a minister (because although I know some female Protestant ministers, I don't really see their husbands doing so much of the day-to-day support, coordination, mentoring level that the wives of male ministers often do) makes. I like that the Armenian Church says, "hey, the wife of a priest is a real position of responsibility too!"

While I do have issues with the very old-world view of women in general (particularly when it comes to how sons are treasured versus daughters), I think that church life, and maybe only in church life, are the contributions of women, even though they are separate and not always equal (often they are greater), usually recognized and appreciated for what they are. Plus, since churches are usually on the small side, talent doesn't get lost in the herd, whether it is male or female. Maybe this is why I think that the women are appreciated? They can't afford to piss them off.

This is not to say that I don't think that girls shouldn't be on the altar- I do! I am glad that there are a few churches who break/bend this rule to a certain extent. Or that I don't care that the men are happy to sit around and smoke and drink and wear SECURITY vests rather than pitching in with the real grunt work. I am indifferent about women becoming priests, I think because there are so many opportunities to express a call for anything, and you can still go to St. Nersess seminary and take classes and get a degree if you are a woman (I know they have a layperson's track and a priest track- I am not sure if women can do the priest track, even though they obviously won't become priests).

One positive thing about the Armenian Church is that often they are not big churches, which means that any one individual person has a greater opportunity to make a concrete difference in the environment of a church. Each person can be more welcoming, can reach out to new people/strangers. You can work to organize activities to get people involved. You may not be able to change the entire culture and structure of the church, but you can make the church your own.

It is late. I might go back and edit this post later, for fear that it is incoherent, but I wanted to get it up there. I've been promising it for a while.

Bullet Point Sermons

The sermons at my church crack me up. As I've mentioned before, sermons are not really the main focus in the Armenian Church, so often they are an afterthought.

The priest at the church that I usually attend (I should come up with nicknames for the two churches- maybe later) actually is very good at preaching in Armenian. I don't understand Armenian, but you can tell. Most Sundays, he will read an English translation of his sermon either before, or intersperse the translation throughout the Armenian sermon. He just isn't as comfortable with English.

What is always so funny to me is that the English sermon can always be summed up in one or two bullet points. I make a point to come home and tell my husband what the bullet point for the week is. They are usually very good messages, although unlike at most Protestant churches that I have been to, unconnected to whatever the Bible reading of the day is. I am not sure if the Armenian sermons can be summed up quite so nicely.

Recent bullet points:

  • God Gave You Brains: Use Them (Or Lose Them).
  • Nobody Is Perfect, followed a few weeks later by
  • Be Above Average

And my personal favorite of all time:

  • God Doesn't Like Losers

Sliding Doors

Do you have anyone in your life that looms large, even in their absence? This is my grandmother, a woman whom I never met. My mother was very close to her; she considered her mother her best friend, and she was just torn apart when her mom died of cancer. It was one of those situations when the cancer was diagnosed very late, and she was gone within a couple of months.

From all reports, everyone loved my grandmother, and she was the glue that held the family together, and to a certain extent, the glue that held my mother together. When she died, the family came apart; my mother came apart. Both held themselves together reasonably well, but like the bowl you drop and try to repair, only to find that you are missing a small yet crucial piece that you just can't find anywhere, neither were ever quite whole again.

My mother came apart right away, but the family took much longer. My mom has said that she never had anything bad happen to her before her mother died, and it was a serious shock to the system. She said that she slept with the hallway light on for two years. I was born a few years after my grandmother died, and my sister within two years after my birth, and this was also very traumatizing for my mother; although the birth of children was very joyous for her, she was very upset and angry because she had always imagined her mother there helping her, and instead, she was all alone. Although she had a sister, a sister-in-law, and an aunt who were all nearby and alive when my sister and I were little, for several reasons, these were not trusted sources of support. My mother eventually developed agoraphobia. I didn't realize this at the time; all I knew was that every time we were supposed to go do something fun (go shopping, etc.), mom got sick, and we couldn't go after all. Yet she was never incapacitated when we had to do boring, decidedly un-fun things, like cleaning. My mother eventually got treatment for this when I was about 12, and it completely changed everyone's lives.

Sometimes, I imagine what my life would be like if my grandmother had not died at the untimely age of 52. I imagine my life just like the movie Sliding Doors, where you see how Gwyneth Paltrow's character's life unfolds when she misses the subway train, and also how it would unfold if she made the train. What if my grandmother was still alive today? It would be theoretically possible, if not for the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She would be 84 today. Not young, but still young enough to possibly be around. My grandfather (her widower) only died 2 years ago, at the age of 99.

Here are the main things that I think would have been different:

  • My mother would have been more relaxed. Although my dad helped out a lot at home, and did his best to give my mother breaks when he could (especially on weekends), having her mom around to help would would have really given my mom some time for herself that was hard to get.
  • My parents might have had a stronger marriage. My mom refused to leave us with a babysitter, and she didn't depend on her other family for help. For sure, my grandmother would have pitched in and taken care of us so my mom and dad could have had some alone adult time together.
  • My mom probably would not have been agoraphobic. Although our childhoods were pretty good, anxiety is no fun for anyone. The plus side of the agoraphobia is that I have a lot of good memories of doing things with my dad, who pitched in and picked up the slack when it came to grocery shopping and errands, and I remember doing a lot of these things with him. So maybe the flip side of the "my mom wouldn't have been agoraphobic" would have been a less-close day-to-day relationship with my dad when I was growing up. Maybe not, though.
  • For sure, my sister and I would have spoken Armenian. Or at least understood it.
  • I think, that had my grandmother been alive, I may have made the same choice that many of the young people in my church have made when it came to college. I bet I would have gone to school much closer to home. This isn't for sure, but I could see it happening for a variety of reasons, because some of the reasons that I went away to school might not have been there, and other reasons might have been around to hold me closer to home. Probably not in my hometown, but maybe I would have gone to school in one of the schools in my region, much like my best friend, who went to a decent private university six hours from home. This is the biggest change in my imaginary Sliding Doors life, and perhaps the most intellectually interesting, because staying closer to home, rather than going far away like I did, would probably have had much different consequences in what I studied, where I lived, whom I ended up marrying, etc.

I don't think that all these changes would have been for the better (some would have been for sure), but like all imaginary lives, we will never know for sure what would happen.


One of our 21-year-old altar boys died yesterday in a freak motorcycle accident (really, it was a freak accident). The people at church are devestated. I didn't know this young man or his family personally, although, since the church isn't that big, we all know each other by sight or interact together, etc.

He was not only a deacon up on the altar, but he was also a scout leader for Homenetmen (co-ed Armenian Boy Scouts- they really are Boy Scouts; they are affiliated in some way with BSA, although they are co-ed, and not really a Boy Scout troup), so all the kids in scouts have had their worlds torn apart as well.

We had a prayer service tonight; the funeral will be later on in the week, but they haven't figured out whether it will be Thursday or Friday. The church was packed with people- many young people in high school and college were there, and everyone was just sobbing. It really took me back, in a bad way. I was in their positions five years ago, and I just wish I could take away their pain. They are all in for a long, painful road.

I am trying to come up with ways to help; the Homenetmen families are doing food, so even though I am not a Homenetmen family, I am going to get on board with that. I think the family also doesn't have a ton of money, so I am going to ask at the church if they are starting a fund/collection/etc. for the family, since funerals are expensive.

It is just so sad; I especially feel for the friends and the kids that he was close to. They are too young to have to deal with this.

I wish that I could share the message at the prayer service tonight, but it was all in Armenian, so I'm no help there. The priest was sad, though- he choked up at one point. You could hear the whole congregation sobbing quietly at that point. I am going to have to get to church early on Sunday; the parking lot was full tonight, and I think it will be the same on Sunday for Hokehankist for him.