Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Shallow puddles of self"

Paul Gregory Alms was a pallbearer at his grandfather's funeral. The experience caused him not only to reflect on his grandfather's life and the significance of being a pallbearer on that occasion, but also on the importance of tradition. From "On Being a Pallbearer":
Many customs and traditions in many areas of life are disappearing from among us. Liturgy in the church, national “rites” such as the Pledge of Allegiance or taking off one’s hat at the National Anthem, and countless other shared activities are being lost. There is some advantage to the rejection of a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. But there is also a danger. More is lost than simple habits. We become more and more isolated, more alone when we mark times and feelings such as birth and marriage and war and patriotism and death in idiosyncratic ways. It becomes “just us” and our decision. Any other greater meaning is gone. When we do things that have always been done, even when it seems antiquated or strange (such as pall bearing), we are affirming that we are not free agents who have landed on the planet in the last twenty years. We have fathers and mothers, grandfathers, great grandmothers, ancestors, who worked and gave birth and believed and raised children, and we are the beneficiaries of that struggle. We have a past to which we are connected through ritual and the shared experience those rituals bring.

A custom such as pallbearing is like a great tidal wave that rolls through the centuries. Each generation joins in it and is carried by it. In so doing the individual is connected to those who have gone before him or her by swimming in the same waters, being propelled by the same currents. This connectedness to the past through rituals and actions is a part of who we are as men and women who are born from other men and women who were born from other men and women, and so on. We are not the first to face death. We have ancestors. Mankind has always sought, at crucial times, to forge some connection with these forbears through doing the same thing they did. It is a part of a communal memory. We remember ancestors by acting like they did when we are born or die or are married.

The rush to be “individuals,” to express ourselves or have our own identities, has in the past century engulfed and destroyed many traditions such as pallbearing. Flamboyant displays of personal preference have turned weddings and funerals into extreme manifestations of self. We dare not do a “traditional funeral,” for we are told that such was not who the deceased “really was.” The soon to be married go to great lengths to design a wedding that is “their own” unlike any other. Ironically, in the hurry to be ourselves, we lose more than we gain. We shake off our connection to the great wave of the past and are diminished not enlarged. In stepping out of the stream of history, we isolate ourselves and become shallow puddles of self rather than members of a great deluge of lineage and relations.
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » On Being a Pallbearer


  1. Wow, great post. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Anonymous7:54 PM

    An interesting point regarding our cultural focus on the individual. One of the things that has come up in my politics classes is the American ideal of Individualism. Usually it is thought of in a positive way, in terms of the motivation it provides to throw off tyranny and resist oppression. This, however, is another aspect of that focus, and perhaps a new one. I wonder if the balance between individual identity and group tradition was one which was better understood in previous generations, so that it didn't really need to be explicitly voiced.

  3. Ben, I think you're right - earlier generations did have a better balance. Americans have always valued individual ambition and held individuals responsible for their actions but didn't see that kind of individualism as the enemy of tradition and custom.


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