I’d like to share with you the story of Boomer the cat. He is the only pet that has been buried in a Veteran’s Administration National Cemetery. He was the beloved pet of highly decorated Vietnam veteran whom I had the pleasure of knowing during the last chapter of his life. Boomer preceded his owner in death. My grief stricken friend had the cat cremated and set the ashes atop his fireplace mantel for a while. One day he told his wife that he and Boomer had made a deal. They were going to be buried together. He gave her specific instructions on how she was to sneak the cat’s ashes into his casket. Little did she know how this strange request would evolve as her husband’s health diminished.
A few years later the veteran was given news of a heart condition that needed a risky surgery. My good friend was faced with the possibility of his own death. The wife noticed that the only thing that would keep her husband optimistic was the silly thought of Boomer being the only cat buried in a VA cemetery. His jokes about Boomer became a comforting ritual that eased him into accepting death as a real possibility. Every time he would speak to me, his chaplain, about this God and their uncertain meeting; he began with a Boomer comment, story or joke. After several of these conversations he called me to his bedside before surgery. He told me was ready for “whatever cards got dealt”.
The veteran’s heart gave out suddenly post-op and I became not only officiating pastor of his funeral, but also his wife’s accomplice in honoring his last wish. With the ashes of Boomer snuggly fit in her awkwardly large purse, she told me to be her look out as she darted into the funeral home. Five minutes before friends and family gathered to give condolences, Boomer was smuggled into his final resting place.
This silly story speaks to the power of ritual. Every culture has rituals that accompany certain phases of life. The Bible is no different. In Numbers 31:21-24, Moses’ soldiers are given a ritual for transition from war to civilian life. Often the rite of purification was used to signify certain rites of passage – childbirth for example. This ancient and modern evidence suggest to me that God has created something special in our DNA causing us to ritualize life. For Christians, the obvious example is the celebration communion and baptism in our worship.
Personal ritual holds power too. Boomer the cat served his master post mortem, giving the veteran a pattern to which address his own mortality. I’ve seen the commercial of the young swimmer that writes the winning time on a white board after the gold was won. She sees it every day as she leaves her room, encouraging toward victory. These are examples of powerful rituals, present and past, personal and communal.
Discussion question: Do you ritualize anything personal in your life? In your work, at school, or in your spiritual life? How is the ritual beneficial?
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