This time of year it is common in many religious traditions to speak about death whether it be for All Souls, Samhain, the Day of the Dead or some other holy day.
I think these holy days were created because it isn’t alway easy to speak about death. It isn’t always easy to find the right words to say to someone after they’ve lost a loved one. And so I was particularly moved when I came across this poem recently.
When You Meet Someone in Deep Grief by Patricia McKernon Runkle
Slip off your needs
And set them by the door.
This darkened chapel
Hollowed by loss
Hallowed by sorrow
Its gray stone walls
Are here to listen
Not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew
Make no sound
Let the candles speak.
Powerful words. When we lose a loved one, the silent presence of a friend may speak volumes more than platitudes or even well intended words of comfort. And yet occasionally someone does come up with the right words.
In his poem Things To Do in Providence the poet Ted Berrigan wrote words about death that I believe speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one.
The heart stops briefly when someone dies,
A quick pain as you hear the news & someone passes
From your outside life to inside. Slowly the heart
To its new weight, & slowly everything continues,
This poem captures many of the emotions felt by those who have lost someone, the way that time stands still when we get the news, the quick pain that arrives when the news sinks in and the way our relationship to that person passes from our outside life to our inside life.
Death marks the end of a mortal life but it doesn’t end a relationship. There may still be things that need to be said, words that need to be spoken and experiences that need to be shared.
Rabbi Naomi Levy, one of my favorite public theologians, tells the story of surprising her fiance by saying, “I want to go to New York so we can invite my father to the wedding.” The statement was a surprise for two reasons, the couple was living in California at the time and the rabbi’s father was no longer living. She explained to her puzzled partner, “It’s a Jewish tradition to invite deceased loved ones to the wedding.” With this explanation her fiance agreed to the trip.
So they took the 7 hour flight to New York City and drove through rush hour traffic toward the New Jersey suburbs until they reached the cemetery where her father was buried. They stood before his grave in silence and then she took a deep breath and said, “Hi, Daddy, this is Rob. I love him. I’m sure that you’re going to love him too. We’re getting married on April fourteenth and we’d like to invite you to the wedding. We hope you can come.” With these simple words a tradition was fulfilled.
I had never heard of this tradition of inviting the deceased to the wedding until recently, but everything about it feels right. I suspect that ritual does not always include a 7 hour flight or bumper to bumper traffic or even a trip to a cemetery or a visit to a grave. For once those we love have moved from our outside life to our inside life we realize we can invite our loved ones to the wedding wherever we happen to be. Nor should we feel limited to wedding invitations alone. We can issue invitations for any special event.
For instance, I am inviting my mother of blessed memory to the voting booths this election season. Not literally. I actually voted absentee since I am (to use the language of our state government application for an absentee ballot) a caretaker of a …physically disabled person (this includes voters who care for or reside with persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which…render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).
So my invitation to my mother to go to the ballot box is not a literal one. This invitation is not about my outward life. This invitation is about my inner life. My mom cared passionately about democracy, human rights and women’s rights. She cared passionately about the issues confronting us in this election cycle. So it seems appropriate to invite her to be present with me when I vote.
Of course, the dead cannot vote…legally. However, there is a legend from the first part of the 20th century about Boss Crump in Memphis who invited his aide, Will Gerber, to go with him to a local graveyard so they could get the names of “voters” from the tombstones for the next election. Crump got to one grave where he could not read the name of the deceased. Gerber said to him, “Just put any name down.” Crump disagreed, “No, Willie, you’ve got to have the right name. I want this to be an honest election.”
So even though the dead cannot vote, their memory can empower us to stay involved and to cast our ballots and advance the causes they cared about and that we continue to care about. Today, I am mindful of some of the members of this congregation who cared about democracy who are no longer living Bee DeSelm, Wade Till, Jack Leflore, Ruth Martin and you could name others.
Of course, there may be some loved ones we don’t want to invite to the ballot box. Today I am mindful of Ed Goff who used to come to my office on election day just to tell me, “I am going to the ballot box to cancel out your vote.” For the record I never told Ed who I was voting for but he had his suspicions. So I won’t be inviting Ed to the ballot box this year for fear he might somehow find a way to cancel out my vote from the Great Beyond BUT I am inviting him to join us for our potluck picnic after church today. Indeed, if you feel led, feel free to go up to the memorial garden after the service, look at the names on the wall of those who are no longer living and invite them to our homecoming celebration today.
Last week I participated in a ritual of remembrance for my father. When my father died last year he was cremated and most of his ashes were interred in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Milledgeville, GA. However, we set some of the ashes aside for other places special to him. Last week my sister Shannon and I scattered some of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise, marking both the end of his life and the beginning of a new day. My sister drew a heart into the sand. We placed the ashes in the middle of the heart and then we stood back as the tide slowly took him away.
I had a good visit with my sister and I decided to stay at the beach a couple of days after she left. I wanted to walk on the beach where my father and I once walked together. Over the years our walks got shorter and shorter. At our last visit we simply walked out to the beach and sat down in beach chairs.
One evening I was sitting on the porch of the condominium where my father and I used to sit watching the ocean. There was an empty chair beside me. Meister Eckhardt once said, “There is nothing in the world so much like God as stillness,” and my father had a special gift for being able to sit still. So sitting still on the porch I could feel his presence as I watched a group of people gathering at the ocean’s edge. At some point I could hear cheers. It took me a minute to realize I was watching an ocean baptism. People were wading into the water, fully clothed, held in the hands of a loving community and fully immersed into the ocean, coming up to the surface to the sound of raucous cheering. The end of an old life and the beginning of a new day.
My father was an Episcopal minister, but he grew up in the Baptist church. His decision to become an Episcopalian was not universally understood or appreciated by every member of his family of origin. When my Aunt Jenny learned I was a Unitarian she said, “A Unitarian? I thought he was at least Episcopalion.”
So sitting on the porch with an empty chair beside me watching a baptism in the ocean felt like an appropriate activity to share with my father. And I think this kind of ritual can be appreciated by people of all faiths and beliefs or even non-beliefs. Because I think we all want to feel fully immersed in Something Bigger Than Ourselves. I think we all want to feel a part of Something Larger Than Ourselves.
Oddly enough, as I watched this ritual a song I associate with my mother came to mind, a feminist song often shared in women’s spirituality circles.
We all come from the Goddess
And to Her we shall return
Like a drop of rain
Flowing to the ocean
And in the midst of this song welling up within me I also felt another song I associate with my father and my memories of him standing in the role of the priest at the altar in the Episcopal church he loved.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him all of ye heavenly hosts
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost
I think the folks down on the beach would have appreciated the second song more than the first one. Southern Baptists are not exactly known for their deep interest in the goddess or feminist spirituality.
When my mom died I inherited a picture of my parents on their wedding day. I had mixed feelings about displaying the picture at first because they were divorced. However, now it just looks like two young people in love unaware of how their story might unfold. And I thought of that picture as I remembered those two songs. For it felt like my parents who were divorced in life were reunited in death as both have passed from my outward life to my inward life.
When we meet someone in deep grief we would be wise to remain silent. To slip off our needs and set them by the door. To enter barefoot into this darkened sanctuary and let the candles speak. For the person in grief sitting in that chapel with us may already have a companion on the inside and we do not necessarily want to interrupt their still, calm, quiet moment of communion, their sacred moment of togetherness. For death ends a mortal life but it does not end a relationship. For we all come from mystery and to mystery one day we will return like a drop of rain flowing to meet the ocean. So be it. Amen.