The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
ALL SAINTS/ALL SOULS
Immediately following Halloween are All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Catholic calendar. In Europe and in places like New Orleans All Saints Day is celebrated by going to the cemetery to clean up and arrange the family graves. I’ve never quite understood why they do it on All Saints rather than All Souls since there are very few saints and all of us, at least theoretically, have souls, but so it is. In Latin America it is celebrated as the Day of the Dead with decorated altars and special foods, some of which strike me as a bit macabre. All these observances are somewhat tinged with paganism, but that is true of most of our celebrations., In fact, it is probably for that reason — that it is next to the pagan celebration of Samhain — that it is All Saints rather than All Souls that is commemorated. Whenever it happens, it is well to have a time set aside to remember our own mortality and the names and faces of those whom we love who have died in the previous year. If ever a congregation has been confronted with mortality, it is this congregation this year. There have been too many deaths within our congregation. Going to funerals and memorial services has become a matter of usage. Mourning the loss of people that we love is something we have learned to do. It is well for us to remember them as we do today.
A few people have said that it is to be expected — that as a congregation ages, a rash of deaths is only natural. It is natural, of course, for the aged to die, and all of us are aging, from whatever vantage point we presently stand. However, I am not at all sure that our congregation is really aging except in the perceptions of some of us. Though Naples itself has a pretty high average age, many of those who have joined recently are quite young and have brought us children. It is the cycle of birth and growth and death, inescapable, joyful — and sorrowful.
I have heard people say that what makes Unitarian Universalist memorial services and funerals special is that instead of concentrating on the death of the individual, they are a celebration of the person’s life. Well, I think our services are special. I have had two funeral directors — and if anyone should know they should — say that the services they have seen of mine were the best that they had ever experienced, and mine are, I think, much like those of my colleagues — and they are, as advertised, a celebration of life. However, if they are only the celebration of the life of the person who has died, they might be different from other more traditional services, but they wouldn’t be adequate to their purpose. We celebrate, but we also mourn. To deny the pain of loss is to deny honor to those whom we have loved and to our own feelings.
One of the consequences of so many deaths that have mattered to us so deeply is that we begin to think again of our own mortality. It has been said, and I think truly, that until we have remorselessly confronted the fact that we too will die, we cannot begin the true spiritual quest which seeks meaning beyond our living in the material world. Religion has been called what we do in response to the mystery that we are born and that we are going to die. We know intellectually, of course, as soon as we are old enough to learn about it, that we are mortal. However, I suspect that we don’t really believe it — believe it beyond hope or doubt — until something more than intellectual understanding teaches it to us. That is probably why the young take risks that older people would never venture, why they make braver soldiers and have poorer driving records, and even, perhaps, why they tend not to bother with church until a certain level of maturity. We worry about the dearth of college-age and twenty-somethings among us, and it’s something I would like to change, but I suspect it is partly because they haven’t yet really experienced the truth that they will die, and that is something about which we can do nothing, and probably don’t want to change. That knowledge is not one that we are eager to impart to our children, however actually useful and important it is. They may be fascinated by theological speculation, but the actual practice of religion is less important to them until that confrontation actually occurs.
It happened to me in my twenties, in fact, for the happiest of reasons. It was when my first child was born. My mother described me as the most relaxed mother of a first child that she had ever seen. She was surprised when I didn’t worry about his getting a little dirty, or call the doctor if he happened not to be particularly hungry for one of his feedings. It shouldn’t really have surprised her. As the second eldest of six I had taken care of babies before, and she was not privy to my nightmares. I began to dream of various creative ways of being killed, and in my waking hours I found myself nervous, for example, riding in a car. After a reasonable amount of self-examination, I realized that these fears of death had their origin in the realization of how important my life had become in the care of this new being that I had brought into the world, and with this new importance came a new awareness of its fragility. That understanding cured the nightmares and the nervousness, but it also gave me a new concern — what really was the meaning of it all, of being born, of bringing new life into the world, of aging and, finally, of dying.
When the realization of your own and others’ finitude comes, there are a lot of ways to deal with it. My response included anger. It made me angry to think that I might die before I was finished rearing my children, loving all the people I wanted to love, following out all the ideas I wanted to pursue. It still makes me angry when someone dies too young, with life unfinished and potential unrealized. It should not be that way, I feel, and nothing I know or believe has yet changed that feeling. One of the most popular ways to deal with a realization of death is denial. We do that in a lot of ways. Ernest Becker, a serious modern thinker, wrote an interesting book in which he argued that almost everything we do in our western culture is an attempt to deny the fact that we are going to die. We see that denial worked out in various ways. We display our dead as if they were sleeping, for instance. I would suggest that our obsessive concern with our health is another form of that denial. Some day the hospitals will be filled with people who ate right, exercised right and maintained a healthy attitude of mind, and they will not be able to understand why they, too, are dying. They are, though. It may take them a little longer than those of us who cherish our self-destructive behaviors, but they are going to die. As an aside, it has occurred to me to be a bit bemused by the excuse of some people for punitive responses to this self-destructive behavior in higher taxes and public shame who say that people’s early, unnecessary deaths are monetarily costly for society. I suspect that you could look at that two ways. People who die young don’t use up social security and pension money, nor do they linger in nursing homes. When we do eventually die, it costs just as much anyway. After all, the one thing that is 100% fatal is living.
Becker insists that the most common way that we deny death is to invent systems of personal immortality. You are probably aware that I consider speculation about a personal life after death as being interesting but unprofitable. We have no evidence, and the only way we can be sure of the answer is by dying, in which case if there is one we’ll know, and if there isn’t we still won’t know. My own feeling is that if you discount the amount of speculation about it that would equal the bias of those talking about it, you get even less than no evidence. Our bias, after all, could not be greater. The idea of eternal life is, in one form or another, overwhelmingly attractive to most of us. I have actually experienced rather an odd shift in my own thinking about it over the last few years. Although it still angers me to think of death depriving us of those we love, and although I am personally in no rush, having quite a few things yet to do before I’m ready to wind up my accounts, I find the idea of eventual death rather comforting than otherwise. Though I’m by no means tired yet, I can dimly perceive the possibility of becoming so, and the idea of continuing forever as this particular consciousness absolutely appalls me. There would be no way I could avoid continuing to be concerned about the well-being of the world, of my children, of this congregation, of all the people and institutions and things that I love.
When Becker talks about what we do to deny death, although I can agree with him most of the way, he describes some things as denial that I would consider a healthy and appropriate response to an understanding of our mortality. Specifically it is the creation of things that will live after us, including the building of institutions, that he considers a way to perpetuate ourselves beyond our normal life span, and which in itself he considers a denial of death. I think that it is instead an acceptance of our finiteness and an effort to transcend it. By creation, by the ways in which we live for more than today, for more than material welfare, we make our lives meaningful.
When I do a funeral or a memorial service, the readings differ depending on who the person is — on their age, their interests, their temperament — but some readings always remain the same. The first one that almost never varies is by Rabindranath Tagore which says, “When death shall knock at your door, what will you offer to him?” The answer is everything — everything you did and were — and Tagore’s commitment is that Death shall never go away empty-handed. It is then that I begin to speak of the life of the person who has died, the gifts that they have given both to death and life by being who they were. Then is the second reading that almost never varies, one by Chuck Gaines that says truly that one person cannot sum up the life of another, that all people live as they are remembered by those who knew them. When you attend a service, even of someone you thought you knew well, you realize how little you really knew, how much there was, how many unknown dimensions there are to every human being, and how each different friend elicits and knows something different. The reading goes on to say, “As living memories we offer the greatest gift that we can give to one another.”
Whatever we believe about immortality, of one kind there is no doubt: the immortality of memory. There is another, even better, that we can offer to our friends and our most belovèd when they die, and that is to live our lives more lovingly, more justly, more creatively, more meaningfully, because they have lived and died. There is a beautiful passage from an Islamic source:
One came to the prophet and said, “My mother has died. What can I do for the good of her soul.” The prophet replied, “Go and dig a well in the desert.” The man dug the well and when it was finished he said, “This I have done for my mother.”