2018-08-17 / Letters

Ceremonies were learning events

To the editor:

This weekend I attended two funerals and while they were different in many ways, there were things that impacted me and left me thinking about the importance of these ceremonies.

The first occurred on Saturday for a young 22-year-old South Sudanese man named Patrick Lobor who died from a stab wound last week. Patrick graduated from Deering High School and played basketball there and then at Southern Maine Community College. Much loved, Patrick was seen as mild mannered, loving, kind and strongly faithful. I met Patrick at SMCC, tall with a big smile, and found him to be a gentle soul.

The second funeral was Sunday for Lt. Harry Weymouth, a South Portland and Buxton firefighter. I met Lt. Weymouth as a member of the South Portland Civil Service Commission and found the descriptions of him in the stories told to fit the man I met ever so briefly – caring, always helpful, a great dad, a wonderful husband and filled with faith.

However, the other thing that struck me about both of these services, albeit two men from very different backgrounds, was the importance and value of ritual. At the South Sudanese ceremony held at St. Luke’s Church (to accommodate the crowd), the service was familiar until the burial. In my experience with most American burials, only a few show up at the cemetery and after a few prayers, everyone leaves and the grounds crew lowers the casket and fills the grave. Not this one. Here there were about 150 people who arrived at Calvary Cemetery. Prayers were said, traditional songs were sung and those gathered waited for the casket to be lowered into the ground. First, his father spoke and announced to the crowd that if Patrick owed money to anyone there, to come forth and tell the family and they would pay – and if anyone owed anything to Patrick, he too should come forth and pay the family – a tradition that is to ensure that the one who has died owes nothing on this earth and is owed nothing by anyone. Family members and close friends then tossed flowers into the grave, followed by the men who took shovels and filled the grave with the surrounding soil. Next the women dropped to their knees and slowly smoothed the soil over the grave, everyone singing in their native tongue the songs that blessed Patrick and said goodbye. Top soil was brought in as the last covering before the stone, and again, the women knelt to spread the soil, love in their hands as they smoothed the ground to ensure neatness and give finality. It was stunningly beautiful, and then the crowd slowly dispersed. I sobbed. In this situation, the parents had buried another son four years earlier, at age 23, from another tragic accident. It all seemed like too much – too much for the community, too much for the family, too much for the parents.

On Sunday, tradition and ritual was also rich and full. Two firetrucks, one from South Portland and one from Buxton, stood in the parking lot of The Point Church at Clark’s Pond. The ladders were raised and an American flag flew between them. Once the people were inside, firefighters from both communities, as well as those from Portland to give their support, all stood in uniform outside. They marched in together, followed by the South Portland Police Department, also in uniform, giving grace and dignity to the service. Next was the bagpipes, followed by a group of firefighters, each carrying a piece of equipment used in firefighting and one carrying Harry’s cremated ashes in a simple box. Last was his family – a young wife and mother with three small children, the youngest son who carried his Dad’s helmet as he tried to remain stoic. I wanted to reach out and tell him it is OK to cry. I know I was crying. Again, it all seemed like too much. At only 46, Lt. Weymouth was young and full of life and love. How does this happen? Too much for the community of firefighters, too much for the family, too much for his wife and young children.

At both services, people spoke – the father at Patrick’s and then fellow firefighters and friends at Harry’s. Both were followed by a reception. The first was held at the Root Cellar in Portland where the community women made traditional food, a band played South Sudanese music and more people spoke while the crowd mingled, hugging and consoling each other. At Harry’s the reception was in the church entry and again, food was served and those attending moved about to give hugs and consolation.

I found myself in a very melancholy mood, thinking about the value and importance of ritual/tradition. It helps us to move into our grief, to support one another and to know there is something we can count on in the process. I found more the same than different – more the same in what it symbolized than the actions themselves.

For each, there was a strong sense of community. At Patrick’s, Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali were in attendance as well as leaders from the South Sudanese community. At Harry’s, Mayor Linda Cohen and Councilor Maxine Beecher were in attendance, City Manager Scott Morelli and Chiefs Ed Googins and James Wilson, Civil Service Commissioners Lee Harvey, Phil La Rou (also a Portland firefighter) and myself (I may have missed some dignitaries at both services and I apologize. I am only mentioning those I saw to make note of the similarities). Both deaths were tragedies – accidents of some sort – and both caught their respective communities off guard, causing the grief to be even more visible and raw, although it is always there.

The need to hug one another, provide comfort, shake your head in disbelief – all of it is part of the process. It takes time and it truly never completely goes away. The one thing I will say is that for many of us somewhat more on the fringe, the day ends and we grieve but then we continue. For others much closer – family members, fellow firefighters, friends – the grief is much more significant and remains much longer. Remember this. When you think, “Gee, I should call them” or “I should send a card” or “I should stop over,” do it. Just do it. It is never too late or too long past the event. The wound and sorrow is still there, and it matters. Just stop over, send a card (not an email), make a call – but just do it. Stop by to see the family, stop at the fire station to say, “Just thinking of all of you” or call a wife, mother, father, brother or sister and say, “You are on my mind.”

You have a chance to make a difference, and believe me, it does make a difference. Always remember, ritual/tradition have value and importance. They give dignity and ceremony to what often feels unimaginable. This helps too.

Rosemarie De Angelis South Portland

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