Sunday. October 27
9:30 am & 11:00 am
Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss
What is a good death? What is possible when we bring our UU values into the process of not just living, but dying?
A Good Death
“She was tying a colorful string of chatter together, commenting on things from many separate places and many different times, so that when Amaranta returned from school and Aureliano grew tired of the encyclopedia, they would find her sitting on her bed talking to herself and lost in a labyrinth of dead people.
“Fire!” she shouted once in terror and, for an instant, panic spread through the house. But, she was describing the burning of a barn that she had witnessed when she was four years old.
She finally mixed up the past with the present in such a way that in the two or three waves of lucidity that she had before she died, no one knew for certain whether she spoke about what she felt, or what she remembered.
Little by little she was shrinking, turning into a fetus, becoming mummified in life to the point that in her last months she was a cherry raisin lost inside of her nightgown, and the arm that she always kept raised looked like the paw of a marimonda monkey.
She looked like a newborn old woman.
One palm Sunday they went into the bedroom while Fernanda was in church and carried Ursula out by the neck and ankles. Poor great-great-grandmother, Amaranta said. She died of old age.”
Ursula was startled. “I’m alive!” she said. “You can see” Amarantha said, suppressing her laughter, “that she’s not even breathing.” “Im talking!” Ursual shouted. “She can’t even talk, Aureliano said. She died like a cricket.” Then Ursula gave in to the evidence. “My God,” she exclaimed in a low voice. “So this is what it’s like to be dead.”
She started an endless, stumbling, deep prayer that lasted more than two days, and by Tuesday had degenerated into a hodgepodge of requests to God and bits of practical advice. Her granddaughter was certain they would find her dead from one moment to the next, because she noticed a certain confusion in nature: the roses smelled like goose foot, a pod of chickpeas fell down and the beans lay on the ground in a perfect geometrical pattern in the shape of a starfish, and one night she saw a row of luminous orange disks pass across the sky.”
-100 Years of Solitude
Even as a child, I harbored serious critique of Unitarian Universalism’s response to death.
I wanted answers, not more questions. Even now, in preparation for this sermon, I searched for Unitarian Universalist responses to death, and I came across a new adult RE curriculum on this topic. At last, I thought! Some answers! The title of the curriculum?
“Facing Death with Life.” That’s too milquetoast for me, too glossy. I don’t want to face death with life, I want to face death itself. I relate to Kate’s personal story of a fixation on death around age 9 or 10, contemplating the void rendered my life meaningless, for quite a few months of existential pain and crippling fear.
As a family minister, I offer pastoral care to children. In my years of providing this service, the vast majority of children I have worked with are in 4th grade. This is the time when children are able to fully comprehend both the universality and finality of death. Like Kate, I am now currently struggling to create a container for big questions from my own four-year-old sons that don’t send us all spinning off into terrifying paralysis. I kid you not, as I wrote these words, I just overheard my four-year-old son ask my husband if Obi-Wan-Kenobi has gone to God. Followed by, but Dad, but Dad, where is that? Where is God? Is it a twinkle in your eye? Who was I before I was born? Let’s just say this is an overwhelming stage of life.
The storylines of Gabriel Garcia’s body of work feature ghosts who propel the narrative forward. Hauntings are not sources of terror, but of momentum. The dead tend to stick around, to bless various couplings that perpetuate the family lineage, or to disrupt events that threaten true love. I welcome this approach to the dead, inviting them to haunt our decisions, to serve as a committee for the way we choose our own adventures.
Whether you honor Samhain, the days between Oct. 31st and Nov. 2nd when pagans believe the veil between living and dead has thinned, and the ancestors often visit the living, or you recognize All Saints day, a Catholic ritual honoring those who have died, or Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday honoring ancestors and family members who have died by creating an ofrenda or altar, and feasting on their favorite foods, or perhaps you are a transcendentalist who sees the trees unburdening themselves in a glorious death knell as ultimate inspiration.
After all, if we are to look to the autumn leaves, it’s like the canopy that enfolds us all is breathing a long, raspy final breath, but contained in that breath is the most beautifully wise sentence ever spoken.
To everything there is a season, and this is the season for honoring death. While Unitarian Universalists tend to spend our energy celebrating the gift of life and improving life for others, I think we must annually claim a religious holy day to honor and spiritualize death.
Many of my reasons for doing this are practical. Our dead should know they will be honored and remembered here in their congregation, long after they have left it. They should know that at least once a year, their name will be invoked, their memory will be held, their stories will be shared. Taking comfort in the knowledge and resting in the inevitability that their life will return to the congregation’s heart each year is part of what can help make a death good.
Our Unitarian Universalist celebrations of life are some of our most evangelistic opportunities, times when rather than focusing on what comes after, we collectively look back in joy and love, remembering fondly the funny, beautiful, and inspiring gifts of the life that was lived. But what of the death, and what of the rest of us?
Historically, I often speak of Unitarian Universalism as a teenager,
its voice still cracking with uncertainty, always looking for ways to rebel and anger an authoritative presence, wherever it is found. While our celebrations of life are beautiful, positive and healing, there is something we are missing before moving on, a necessary step in the dying, deathing, mourning, and healing process.
In 2014 I received the Fahs Fellowship, a program of Meadville Theological Seminary to study something related to religious education for a year. I spent that year studying death and mourning rituals, and ultimately developing kind of a shiva experience for Unitarian Universalists called UU Mourning Rituals.
One significant feature of the UU rituals of mourning is they happen in the home, and the family takes six days off of work to spend receiving members of the UU congregation or friends and family during that time. This is important, because it represents a break from secular life, and no other Unitarian Universalist observance demands our attention apart from the secular world. Most of our religious observances adapt to our secular schedule, but this is an opportunity to truly rest in the loss.
To take six full days gives the family reprieve from the tyranny of “returning to normal” before they are ready, offering a more intentional and peaceful path through grief. Because we know there is society’s time and there is God’s time (or the Soul’s time), and God’s time will be claimed, one way or the other. Each evening, or a convenient time, people gather for the worship service in the home.
The worship experiences draw from the six UU sources, and so the first is the Day of Wonder, followed by the Day of Prophets. Then the Day of Ecumenical Wisdom, The Day of Scripture, The Day of Reason, The Day of Returning to Earth.
The liturgies include UU hymns, prayers, poems, and litanies from each of the six sources, along with focused storytelling about the deceased. It’s six days because each life is monumental, unfathomably huge, and could never be contained within a couple hours of a memorial service.
For the one who is dying to know that your family, friends and congregation will surround your house with photos of you,
will spend time singing all your favorite songs, reading your favorite authors and poets, will light a chalice and invoke your memory, offers comfort in the final weeks and days. To know you will be held and comforted even in those days after death.
In this way, we can imagine our death will not be a source of confusion and anxiety for ourselves and our family, like the 110-year-old matriarch Ursula in 100 Years of solitude, but instead we can prepare for our death, face it, with wonderment, with awe, and even perhaps with a UU ethic of gratitude. We can take our teenage religion and give it an assignment: face death, create a religious response to death, to grief, not just life, but really face death.
I know our faith can do more than it does. It can inspire hope and spark the love of community within the most challenging moments. I know six days can seem like a lot, but 100 years from now, this UU mourning process will be totally normal to all of us.
This is how we make a home for ghosts, for spirits, for the love that sustains far beyond a single life.
But before all of that, we know we still have so much to do on our own and together, to craft a life worth dying for.