I recently wrote about the death of a longtime friend. I’m writing now, on All Saints Day, because of the death of a young relative who was, as they say, “spiritual but not religious.” Having been asked by the family to speak at the memorial service, I was led to think about how our ways of mourning are changing to be inclusive of the growing diversity of belief in our families and communities. It’s something like what’s happening in our rituals for marriage. I am concerned – as are others – about what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost, and perhaps need to develop, in the language and rituals which might help all of us in times of great loss. So below, as but one example of the effort to find appropriate words, I share (with his family’s permission) words I spoke for the memorial service for Jake – a young husband and father who died after a year-long battle with cancer. It may help to note that the service was held not in a church, but in the outdoors. At the end I’ll ask you to comment about the rituals and language which have helped you, or which you might like to hear and see.
Clearly all of us here, each in different ways, experience the pain of terrible loss at Jake’s passing, probably shock and numbness, perhaps doubt and confusion and even anger. About such pain I say what we know – that it is not only inevitable, but necessary, even right, for it is expresses our love for Jake.
So yes, today we shed tears. We’ll also tell stories and smile, even laugh, as we move around, greeting and touching and hugging in a communal dance far deeper than words.
It may be enough simply to say that this is how we both mourn and begin to heal.
But I want to suggest that our sorrow is, in a very human way, mingled with, grounded on a sense of affirmation, even deep joy.
Mostly because we affirm the goodness of Jake’s life as husband and father, brother and son, friend and companion.
But also because many of us believe, in our different ways, that Jake now lives in the company of his Granny, his Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed, and his brother Peter. It’s why we speak of death as “passing” or “passing on.”
Yet there’s also a more immediate and for most of us more important reason for the affirmation we experience within our pain.
Let me try to explain.
Many know the story of Prince Siddhartha who attained Nirvanna while walking among us. For Buddhists, Nirvanna is not an afterlife, but complete immersion here and now in the river of compassion that flows through everything. It flows most obviously through the lives of saints like the Buddha, but also through many so-called “ordinary” people. And even the rest of us have times when we are held by the flow of that river. The fundamental affirmation and deep joy we may feel today are perhaps such a momentary and also communal immersion in that river. It does not take away pain, but cleanses it with our shared compassion.
Some of you may also know about the Lakota holy man Black Elk. He had survived Wounded Knee and knew the evil that murdered his people. Yet as a boy Black Elk had a vision of Great Power for his people. He saw them and all of us living in harmony with the four directions or powers coming from North and South, East and West. They are the daily power of sunrise freshness and noon warmth, of evening quiet and night sleep. They are the annual powers of spring rebirth and summer growth, fall’s harvest and winter’s blanket of snow. They are also the great powers we experience in childhood energy and maturity’s strength, in elder slowing and in the final passage of death (even when it comes far too soon). These are real powers, here in this world. We know them more in our bodies than in our minds. Black Elk says they are gifts from the Grandfathers. For most of us they are spirit-strengths given by our Mother Earth.
I find much in Black Elk’s teachings that resonate with the teachings of Rabbi Jesus.* Both men believed in an afterlife, but each affirmed that the Spirit’s power is with us “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The pain of Jake’s death is, I say again, rooted in his goodness, his journey to harmony with the Four Directions. And we travel still with him, on streets and slopes and across continents and cultures. We work with him still for a justice rooted in such harmony.
Now a final way to explain this comingling of sorrow and joy: The monk Thomas Merton (a quite Buddhist Christian) tells us about the Great Dance:
“No despair of ours [he says] can alter the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. We are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood whether we want it or not…. We are [he concludes] invited to forget ourselves on purpose…and join that dance.”
The rhythms of that Great Dance move through us now as greet and embrace, cry and laugh. Jake calls us to join him in that Dance, not only today but tomorrow and through all our tomorrows.
I end by repeating my request that you might respond below, not to my remarks for Jake, but to the general issue about how we are finding words and rituals for death.
*In mid-life, Black Elk became a Catholic lay minister while retaining his Lakota beliefs and practices. He has been nominated for canonization by the Catholic Church in North Dakota.