“A Theology of Life in the Midst of Death”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
You are all looking at the new owner of a burial plot at the Vestal Hills Memorial Park. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow, first they buy a home here and now a burial plot. He must be planning on staying a long time.” I certainly do intend to stay in Binghamton for a while, but I must admit I did not buy this burial plot. I won it. Of all the deals I have ever won, this is the most bizarre. Apparently our phone number was drawn at random and this weekend my wife and I were awarded a visit from a duly authorized agent of the Vestal Hills Memorial Park who tried to convince us to spend a thousand dollars on a second plot for my wife. The agent would have happily helped us with burial plots for our extended family as well if we only had some in the area. Indeed the initial letter was very up front about this, their goal is to develop family heritage for their cemetery.
It was an uphill battle for this agent. She was sitting down with a young couple that had recently purchased a home, was new to the area, and had no extended family locally. To make it even harder, Sidra and I are both determined to incur as little expense as possible in these matters. I personally had always intended to be cremated and scattered. We declined all her offers, but still have the one free plot in my name (non-assignable and non-transferable.)
In all that this cemetery agent said there were two main points that came out. One was overtly stated and the other, merely hinted at (though certainly intentional.) Her sales pitch centered around the argument that hardly anyone thinks ahead about death. People do not like to talk about it, certainly not the particulars such as what shall be done with the body. And people definitely do not want to talk about the basic reality of one’s own death! There is a blanket of denial covering this topic in our society. The second point was that the details of death are overwhelming and that if you really love your spouse and children you will take care of at least this much for them. When we pair this attitude of denial with the mass of difficult details we notice that death is secretly becoming big business with lots of money to be made.
One of the general societal trends over the past several decades has been away from generalization toward specialization. The big invention of Henry Ford was not really the automobile, the credit for that needs to be doled out to several people, not one person. Nor was his claim to fame simply the first reliable and affordable automobile, although, that he did do. Really he invented the manufacturing assembly line where a single worker specialized on one small part in the complex creation of an automobile. The concept of specialization that swept through manufacturing also took medicine and mechanics by storm as well as education and economics, and death. The business of death is swamped with details and little necessities to which the bereaved must attend.
Death has become the province of the professionals. Robert Fulghum, in his book From Beginning to End, The Rituals of Our Lives, mentions this when he writes about the state of death in our culture today.
Death, in our time, (he writes) has been given over to institu-tions. Eighty percent of us die in a hospital. If we die else-where, 911 is called, and the police, fire department, am-bulance company, emergency room, funeral home, lawyers, courts, insurance companies, accountants, churches and ministers, cemeteries, and several govern-ment agencies become involved. All have their rules and protocols. For most of us, once we die, we are no longer in the care of our families and friends-strangers and in-stitutions take over. Though we may witness the portrayal of thousands of deaths in movies and on television, it is rare for any of us to see a dead person, much less touch or care for the deceased. …
Instead of a normal part of life, death is treated as an unexpected emergency, something that happens when the medical community fails. … Death in our time means crisis. When someone dies (Fulghum continues) and I’m called upon as a minis-ter, I’m struck by the tone of “something awful has hap-pened.” … They were not expecting this … “She died unexpectedly.”
So many times I have met with families who had no clue as to what to do or where to begin. They don’t know the wishes of the deceased, much less if there is a will and where it might be. The possibility of death has never been addressed in that family. Instead of the last rites, we deal with the last crisis. It is no wonder fu-nerals often seem awkward and painful. We are not pre-pared.
(Fulghum concludes by saying,) It doesn’t have to be this way. I will go further and say it should not be this way.
Fulghum describes our current cultural response to death as “surprised.” I can only agree with him in saying, there is no reason for it to be that way. Do not leave it to the specialists to handle. We need to talk of this more, families need to talk of this more. Don’t let doctors and lawyers and ministers do all the talking. Let us have brothers and sisters and parents and children do more of the talking about what will happen and what can happen when we die. A great book came out about five or six years ago called Tuesdays with Morrie, subtitled: “An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.” It’s about dying. The best part is that it was written, not by a minister or rabbi, not by a doctor or even an activist from within the Memorial Society. It was written by a sports columnist! Mitch Albom worked with the Detroit Free Press and was a regular on radio and television sports shows. He was not a specialist in death! He was simply a writer who had a compelling experience with death in a way that moved him toward life.
An odd, almost counter-cultural thought, there: the death of a loved one can be a positive, life-giving experience. This is one of the underlying messages of that little book written by the Sports Columnist. Our society tells us dying is a terrible, awful thing. In the book, Morrie says, “Dying is only one thing to be sad over, Mitch. Living unhappily is something else.” (p35) I can’t tell you the number of times people have come up to me after a memorial service and said something like, “That was a very nice memorial service,” and then they look down at their shoes and mumble, “Oh, you know, I don’t mean it was nice, but it was, oh, you know…” There is nothing to be embarrassed about. You are allowed to come away from a memorial service feeling good. Especially the way we do them here.
One of the things Unitarian Universalists are known for is our sway of doing memorial services. Non-UU’s who hold a positive opinion of us often recognize us for our commitment to social justice, our intellectualism, our willingness to do interfaith and same-sex marriages, and the way we put together life-affirming memorial services. This is not to say we are the only show in town with these qualities … certainly not! Simply that these are positive qualities for which we are known. I have done dozens of memorial services and a good number of them were for non-members. I think people recognize that we have something to offer. We share the story of a life, we don’t hide from the sorrow and grief; but neither do we let the sorrow and grief take center stage. We offer a theology of life in the midst of death.
I remember a man named Dave. I met him at a little UU fellowship where I had just started at the nearby seminary back before I knew all that I have just told you about life and death. Dave had cancer, a very resistant type of cancer. When he found out that I was studying to be a minister he wanted to meet with me to talk about death. We met, we talked. Mostly he talked. He told me about his illness, and the various treatments he was trying. He told me about questions he was having, questions that surprised him. He wondered about heaven. “Not that I believe in heaven,” he said, “at least not the way my next door neighbor does.”
He told me that he wondered if he might get nervous at the end and start calling around to the other faiths to see what their offering. “You know, hey what is this one offering? Eternal life? Great I’ll take that. What is that one offering? Reincarnation? Hey sounds great.” Then he looked at me, a glint in his eye that told me he was only half joking, and said. “What are you offering?” I didn’t know what to say. I sort of thought to myself, “What do we have to offer? Not much along those lines. It’s a big mystery.” I didn’t say anything. Thankfully he laughed it off. I don’t think I helped him much. I moved up to Chicago a year and a half later and read in the newsletter from that little fellowship that Dave had died.
He died at home. The day he died, he had struggled to put on his church t-shirt. His family and a few close friends from the church and the neighborhood were gathered in the house. They sang hymns from our hymnal as he died. It was a powerful statement by Dave about how important being a Unitarian Universalist was to him. It seems to me Dave figured what we have to offer.
When push comes to shove, it is not a solid theology or a clever idea, but the caring presence of companions that is wanted in the end. Every religion offers some comfort to the harsh reality of death. In the face of death, we Unitarian Universalists speak of life. It is good and right to help one another so. This is how we live. This is how we die. This is all we have to offer.
In order for this to work, however, you have to refuse to be surprised by death, save when it really is a surprise. You can prepare for the undeniable reality of death. Talk you’re your lawyer and draw up your will and an advanced directive. Talk to any of those other specialists, those doctors and ministers and funeral home directors, if need be. Most importantly, talk with your family. Often this is not easy. “Oh, Mom! Don’t talk about that. You’re not going to die, not for a long time.” If you bring up your death, some people will refuse to talk about it, as if talking about it would make it happen sooner. Maybe you will need to be persistent or leave lots of notes.
You can prepare for the undeniable reality of death. And for that part for which you cannot prepare, have faith that it will work out without being a crisis. Trust life. Trust that when that last stage of your life arrives, you will be able to take advantage of what is offered. Trust life.
There is a poem called “First Lesson” that brings this home, this idea of trusting life. It is from a collection called Letter from a Distant Land in which the author, Philip Booth writes to his daughter:
Lie back, daughter, let your head
Be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
Your arms wide, lie out on the stream
And look high at the gulls. A dead-
Man’s float is face down. You will dive
And swim soon enough where this tidewater
Ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe me,
When you tire on the long thrash to your island,
Lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
And let go, remember when fear
Cramps your heart what I told you:
Lie gently and wide to the light-year
Stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
When I learned this poem, I also learned from a colleague that he first heard it read at a memorial service by the father of a young woman who had drowned. “Lie back, daughter, … I will hold you.” “A dead-man’s float is face down, … lie up and survive.”
This poem is not about swimming, it is about life and death. “Remember when fear cramps your heart what I told you: lie gently and wide to the light-year stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.” Trust life. You life will be filled with both wonder and pain; embrace both. You will be touched by death as you go through your life. Trust that when fear cramps your heart you can relax and be held in the grace of the world. The sea will hold you.
In a world without end, may it be so.