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Funeral for a marriage

Shadow couple, Flickr image by Gare and KittyLet us handle some cold facts carefully here like brilliant knives.

About 240,000 Australians are born every year. We have a sacrament to welcome them.

About 130,000 Australians die every year. We have a sacrament to say farewell.

About 100,000 Australians get married every year. We have a sacrament to celebrate their nutty courage.

About 50,000 Australians get divorced every year. We have no sacrament for them.

Something crucial and wonderful and holy and sweet and salty between that man and that woman sickened and withered and died, without public mourning or witness or ritual, without communal attention and respect.

It dies shivering the souls of the formerly married and their children and their friends, and the Church has nothing to say, turns and looks away, frowns and castigates, and everyone shuffles forward into the muddled future, trying to repair their shattered hearts.

Maybe there should be a sacrament for the end of a marriage. Maybe we should gather as a people to witness and mourn the death of love and hope. Maybe we should create a ritual by which we honor their brave attempt, and formally conclude their failed endeavor.

Maybe we should offer the people we love and respect a day of dignity to close an immensely painful chapter, to publicly offer our support to women and men and children, in the same way that we publicly offered our support and witness on the day they vowed to honor each other all the days of their lives.

I do not say we should celebrate divorce. No death deserves celebration, as death is loss, hole, emptiness. But in the same way we celebrate the life lived, and the life to come, when we conduct funerals, why not celebrate the love loved, and the love to come, with a funeral for a marriage?

I hear wailing and the gnashing of teeth — by publicly acknowledging divorce, by public prayer for the deceased marriage, we acquiesce to divorce! we make it normal! we make it acceptable! in fact, gasp, we promote it!

Nonsense. Do we promote death by offering witness at a funeral? No — we face what is, we deal with real, we go deep into the ancient magic of the human heart, we soak the mundane with the sacred, and rise healthy and hopeful from the rubble.

One of the great subtle geniuses of the Catholic Church is the way it makes holy the most intense and powerful moments in life — the miracle of birth, the cleansing and catharsis of confession, the wonderful courage of marriage and priesthood, the preparation for death, the final celebration of life and joy at the journey to Light.

Yet divorce is an incredibly powerful and painful chapter in millions of lives a year in this country alone, and we only murmur around it, gossip and sigh, take sides or notes for new addresses and phone numbers. A judge signs a decree, assets are divided, children's lives apportioned into custodial hours, sadness rises like a tide, and everyone grapples for new lives in which the divorce is a biographical note, not a hammer to the heart.

But there's been no funeral, no hour of public prayer, no ceremony of farewell, no communal gathering to witness what was and pray for what might be.

Why not? Wouldn't we be more honest, more prayerful, more loving children of God if we gathered and held the shattered family in our common hearts for an hour? Don't you think they need us? Don't you think, God forbid you are ever in the same haunted place in life, you would need them?

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian and American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, sacrament of divorce



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Existing comments

What a great article. And how true! There should be something for the innocent party in a marriage breakdown. I do recognise "it takes two to tango".

Mike Day | 06 August 2008  

I can only say "Amen" to this article. I work with divorced and divorcing people. Just as a funeral helps acknowledge and heal the grief after death; so too, would a service that acknowledges the pain and suffering of divorce. Why are we so blind?

Winsome Thomas | 06 August 2008  

The general issue Brian raises is important - but a rite for the end of a marriage is very difficult, in the first place because the case is rare where both parties will wish to take part: and if they could, there would be grounds for wondering whether the relationship has actually 'died'.

Anglicans have available a non-official but published rite for 'Release from Marriage Vows', which focusses on a person or whom divorce raises deep spiritual issues.

Theologically, I'm VERY cautious about linking sacraments in the first place to life-stages - especially baptism, which is rite of new birth for persons of any age, not a birth-right. Introducing a Catholic rite for 'Thanksgiving for the gift of a child' would be appropriate for recognising the wonderful divine gift of life, but that is not the same as baptism.

Charles Sherlock | 06 August 2008  

I agree entirely. There are already a few excellent liturgies in Protestant circles, eg. Dorothy McRae-McMahon.

Justin | 06 August 2008  

Perhaps things are easier for me, a priest of the Anglican church, than for my Catholic counterpart. I have once been asked by a member of a congregation to do just as you have suggested.

Their marriage dissolved over many years, like water torture of the family. I was involved in the continuing lives of both husband and wife, and their children. It was the wife who asked for a ritual. The husband refused to engage.

Together we sat and planned. Then we invited others. And then we did. And in it all, God did.

It is sad not only that the church finds it difficult to be intentional about such a ritual. But it is also sad that the people themselves are reluctant to engage at a deep level with their own pain and sense of failure.

Kim Miller | 06 August 2008  

Bill Farrelly

While I can understand, though not agree with, the sentiments behind this article I would argue instead that we should better resource the sacrament of marriage so that far fewer break down. And I would begin, if it were in my power, by making it a stipulation that all married couples engage in both pre- and post-marriage counselling. The latter is perhaps the more important. It is once we (inevitably) fall out of love that we need to learn how to remain committed in our love for one another and to our love for one another.

Bill Farrelly | 06 August 2008  

While marriage is not a sacrament in the Uniting Church (only baptism and holy communion are sacraments) in Uniting in Worship 2, our book of services, is a Service of Healing for those whose marriage is ending or has ended. It can be held in conjunction with a service of reconciliation/healing, any children may be present, and it can be for one or both partners.

Marie Wilson | 06 August 2008  

Brian Doyle has show great insight into a massive problem in the whole of society and within the catholic community as well. What to do? how can we respond on a local level to this massive problem? After a marriage break up men and women find themselves in a terrible bind, they face the problem of day to day living, perhaps raising a family alone, grief at the loss of their marriage, guilt for bringing on such a trauma, financial difficulties. This is a whirlpool that no one could be prepared for. How are people coping, where do they get assistance? In my opinion this is the biggest problem facing society generally and the faith community in particular. What to do?

Kevin Vaughan | 07 August 2008  

As someone who is still feeling the wounds of a separation, I think Brian has touched on something important. However, I balk somewhat at the language of marriage dying. To me there is a sense reification of 'marriage', as if it is a separate thing from the two people who are helpless victims. It is people who make a marriage and people who break it.

Recognising agency involves recognising one's responsibility and failures. This involves deep repentance, confession and forgiveness. Very commonly, however, when a person abandons or otherwise betrays a spouse, to avoid their guilt they will blame their spouse for their actions. Indeed, they become as absolutely convinced of their spouses 'unworthiness' as they were convinced of their 'worthiness' when they married.

For the ones left, there is often a deep sense of betrayal. In my case, (as one left), I would love to forgive my wife as part of moving on. But how can one forgive (except in imagination) when there is no willingness by the other party to acknowledge anything other than the complete justification of their actions, due to the fact that their identity has become so tied to their narrative of separation?

For me, a celebration of 'what we had' which does not involve genuine acknowledgment of betrayals and their forgiveness, would be a farce.

Eric Best | 07 August 2008  

It would take a brave couple to both front up to such a ceremony. Almost as brave would be the community of friends and family that are invited to witness it/participate. But that may be the point. In our culture of hyper-individuality, some new forms of accountability for each other would be counter-cultural and challenging, and a good thing. For those whose weddings I've witnessed, the prospect of ceremonially witnessing the divorce increases my sense of being a stake-holder and investor in the community surrounding that marriage.

chris warren | 07 August 2008  

Yes, there's something important here, though very delicate.

I want to move beyond words like 'failure' and 'betrayal'. I tried my best in every moment (yes, I'm currently finishing a marriage). Of course it's easier to see, in retrospect, how my 'best' might not have been so great, and where I might have made better choices. Some choices might have ended the marriage in a different way, or prevented it from starting. Other choices might have led to the rich relationship we pined for, who knows?

Life can be painful. What's important, perhaps, is to feel it fully, take the lesson, and strive to be clearer, more aware and more loving. And to find forgiveness: she also did her best in every moment. I'm not sure yet how cleanly I get that in my heart.

I'm not sure we're both ready to grieve our loss together. That might be true for many couples. Nevertheless I feel a public acknowledgment of our aspiration, our good times, and our grieving, separately if necessary, would help us on our way. That would be poignant and painful, and it might bring up feelings of shame and anger (in a way funerals usually would not). Everyone present would have to be ready to deal with that. But it would be good to stand with friends and let the painful fullness of life wash over us, and wash us.

Geoff Davies | 08 August 2008  

Sorry Mike, but there is no 'innocent party' in a marriage breakdown - what there is too often is a refusal to communicate for many reasons.

i agree that some ritual would mark the end of a shared life that started out with such hope. Currently it's as though someone has dropped the macrame thread and it's just dangling.

Hilary | 13 August 2008  

Sorry Mike, but there is no 'innocent party' in a marriage breakdown - what there is too often is a refusal to communicate for many reasons.

i agree that some ritual would mark the end of a shared life that started out with such hope. Currently it's as though someone has dropped the macrame thread and it's just dangling.

Hilary | 13 August 2008  

I remember sitting in a counsellor's office and he asked my husband 'how much are you prepared to work on this?'. My husband says he would give it 5%. Then he asked me the same question and I said 10%. The counsellor said that wasn't enough from either of us and with our permission could he bless what had been? In the bewilderment of that moment one man acknowledged to both of us that there had been love, faith, good will, hope and a child and thanked God for that. It was a small gesture but it was also the only time anyone had acknowledged there was anything left from the wreckage. I have always been grateful for that.

Robyn | 25 August 2008  

Brian, couldn't agree more with your call for a public acknowledgement and ritual. It's been neglected for too long, by our wider society and by the Church in particular. And to those who say it will promote divorce? What's wrong with that if people are in miserable marriages? What are we frightened of here?

Sue Crock | 25 August 2008  

While the death of a marrage partner is an accepted ending of a marrage, divorce is certainly not. Divorce is the temination of a legal contract but the moral, social, legal and ethical ramifications may manifest themselves for many years to come.
Forgivness (offered even if not apparently received) and repentaance may well be a healing salve, but the recognition by such a powerful influence on a persons life as the church, of the new life that is emerging for the "single-again" person is beyond price. The act of forgivness in Chist's name by His Church for the falure of the marrage vows must surely be a resurection experiance that puts the past in its place and opens the door to the future.
Does this mean that this action condones or encourages divorce-NO- rather it recognises human frailalty and Gods grace to us through Jesus Christ.

Richard LANE | 31 August 2008  

Yes Eric, I too was the one who was left, and my ex-partner has refused to accept any responsibility for his desertion or his infidelities, in fact he has denied them and then turned the blame on me now that I have got on with my life.

But for me, a sacrament for my divorce would not so much be a celebration of what we had, but a recognition of the fact that it is now gone. Divorce is like any loss and you just have to grieve or it eats you inside and you become bitter and hard. Five years down the track and the pain still comes upon me that I have somehow 'failed' my children. I am powerless to make my children's father take responsibility for even the simple act of keeping in regular contact with them, let alone seeing them more than once or twice a year.

Rather than a specific mass for a couple currently divorcing maybe we could have a mass for all couples divorced and divorcing who can come to grieve together and understand and comfort each other's pain.

Esperanza Torres | 24 September 2008  

some brief comments:
* really helpful reflections from brian and commenters
* both parties present: i'd discourage this because it only increases emotional connection
* i'd avoid such a ceremony if there was any chance of reconciliation
* it's definitely not a sacrament
* see david instone-brewer's divorce and the church, chapter 11 for good thoughts on this
* bill's comment is helpful about efforts to strengthen marriages, but not at the expense of ignoring this issue
* kevin's thought about recognising responsibility and failure, and repentance: excellent
* forgiveness can be unilateral and doesn't require the other party's acknowledgement

as a divorced person who was left, i had my "ends and beginnings" event with close friends in which we (a) thanked god for the good years of marriage, (b) lamented together its collapse, (c) committed the future to god. that was the "bookend" of my marriage.

happy to exchange ideas at lukeprentices.com

Luke Prentice | 30 September 2008  


Maureen | 02 February 2009  

I just wrote a poem about the my son's divorce. Where is the Memorial, the prayers and Minister to comfort and bless? Instead friends and family slink off in divided silence.

Lorraine | 21 March 2022  

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