Here's a smattering of out-of-the-ordinary questions from readers:
Q: What are the qualifications to marry people? I know of a guy who sells insurance, a fireman and a secretary from the town hall who can all marry people. Who gave these people the authority to perform weddings? It used to be limited clergy or judges. Can anybody do weddings now? — P., East Islip, N.Y.
A: I had to register my credentials as a rabbi with the state some 30 years ago. It's still true in some states, like New York and California, that the officiant at a wedding must be recognized by his or her faith as someone who can do this. Nowadays, though, nobody does much checking and some "ministers" get "ordained" in 10 seconds on the Internet.
In Colorado, anyone can sign a wedding license, regardless of ordination. I like that. The state should not be in the business of deciding who's properly ordained. By the way, I'd definitely go with the fireman over the insurance guy.
Q: My father passed away in November 1993. We had previously been given a beautiful grandfather clock that worked perfectly for years, but only a few weeks after Dad died, the clock stopped working. The exact time on the clock was 1:11 p.m. This sent chills through me because the exact time of my dad's passing was listed on his death certificate as 1:11 p.m.
Part of my mind thinks of this incident as pure coincidence, while another part thinks of it as a sign of Dad checking in with the family. Do you think it's possible for the dead to visit us through such signs? — J., West Babylon, N.Y.
A: Keep both parts of your mind working. The part that sees the clock stopping as just a coincidence is clearly supported by the facts of life and death as we know them in a scientific way. Death is the end of our physical life, and stopping a clock is beyond the realm of possibility for the dearly departed.
The other side of your mind holds to a spiritual belief that death is not the end of our souls. Viewing the stopped clock as a sign from your father not only requires a belief in the existence of souls, but also a belief that our souls can influence the physical world. This second belief goes far beyond simply believing that our souls immediately ascend to heaven or plummet into hell without pausing along the way to stop clocks.
That is what I believe: Things that go bump in the night are usually people hitting their toes on the bedposts. Meanwhile, a goldfinch shows up at my window every year on the week my dad died in 2007. There are days when I admit to saying, "Hi, Dad" to the bird before my rational mind kicks in.
Q: My husband died 23 years ago, and my youngest son died seven years ago. Now, my only remaining child, a son, who was very supportive through the trauma of both his father's and his brother's deaths, no longer wants to come with me to visit their graves.
He tells me I should "go with a friend." I think this is related to the fact that he wants me to throw out all family memorabilia that reminds him of his dad and brother. I don't want to grant this wish because the memorabilia comforts me, but I also don't want to damage my relationship with my only child. Help. — R., Great Neck, N.Y.
A: First, find out if your son is really upset by you saving family memorabilia, or if he has come to a point in his grief work where visiting the graves causes more pain than healing. If it's the former, throw the stuff out. Your living son is more important than dead things.
If it's the latter, just be patient with him. The next time he tells you to go to the cemetery with a friend, tell him gently, "You are my friend."
Q: You've often mentioned that you lean toward the "intelligent design" theory of creation. This makes me wonder if you've ever had a toothache, earache, appendicitis, lower back pain or kidney stones. If you should ever suffer one of these painful maladies — all of which result from design flaws in the human body — would you reconsider the validity of the modifier in the phrase intelligent design? — P., Melrose, FL
A: No. The reason is smoke detectors. Every intelligently designed house has smoke detectors that screech when they detect something wrong in the air. Our aches and pains are physical smoke detectors that screech when there's something wrong with our bodies.
Sounds intelligent to me. One difference: Don't forget to change the batteries in your smoke detector and don't forget to keep the same God.
(Send QUESTIONS ONLY to The God Squad via email at email@example.com.)