As many traditions celebrate All Saints Day we reflect on those who have gone before. How does our faith call us to lament and to engagement with the transitions of life?
Christopher Wulff is a seminarian at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto, preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. In addition to his being an OWL (Our Whole Lives) teacher and a Lay Chaplain with his congregation, he runs a small web development firm for community non-profits and teaches in the Journalism degree program at Humber College.
Listen to the sermon here or the complete sermon can be read below:
It was a sad song we sang, we the ten gathered friends of my dear friend Myriam. There on the table in the middle of the large wood-panelled room, laid out upon a sage green cloth, was our friend. She had passed just the day before, and per her instructions we had come together. It was a surprising invitation to have gotten, to come to a washing and a shrouding of the body, but in our grief we gathered, following her wishes, wanting to be near her still, wanting to be with one another in our shared grief.
The body washed, her dearest friend invited us forward, each in turn, to come and offer a prayer over her body. We stopped first at a table overflowing with the scents she loved most, the symbols of the natural world that always called to her. Sprigs of cedar, bundles of lavender, rose petals and more. Each would take a small assortment, come to the table, lay the pieces upon her chest and then take her hand. Most would say something quietly first, just for her, then they would tell a story. How they had become friends, how she had shown them kindness, how she offered them advice, or silent companion if that’s what the moment demanded. Myriam always seemed to know which kind of moment it was. And after each person spoke we sang a simple refrain, from her favourite song.
[sing] There’s more love, somewhere
By the end everyone was crying, some quietly weeping, some loudly sobbing. Her body was wrapped and we picked her up by the bamboo poles that held the cloth together and then processed her out through the threshold, singing again.
Yesterday we celebrated Hallowe’en, today All Saints Day, tomorrow All Souls. In the pagan tradition, as you heard in the Children’s story, Samhain began yesterday and carries on into today. In the latino/latina tradition, today we begin Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the skeleton symbols we just meditated on come to life in clay and sugar, as in homes, in streets and in churches we remember those who have come before.
It’s not surprising that this is the time of year when we choose to honour death and to honour the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. As the leaves fall and crumble beneath our feet, and the morning windows are covered with frost, we are reminded at every turn of impermanence, of death, and of the cycles of life.
It’s also the time of year when I am reminded how little we Unitarians have in terms of tradition around death, around grief and around lament. And how I long for us to have more.
It was only about five minutes after Myriam had been carried out those doors that she walked back in. Myriam was a classmate of mine, and that whole exercise had been practice. That ritual was something that my colleague Susie and I put together to test whether there was the possibility for a Unitarian or very liberal Christian practise of washing of the dead, the preparation for burial, the very traditional shrouding.
In Jewish traditions, the body is prepared for burial by a standing committee of the church. In the Islamic tradition, the family themselves prepare the body. In some Wiccan traditions it is the responsibility of the coven to which the person belonged. In each there are words spoken, there are moments of ritual to be observed, and it is done the same way it has been done for thousands of years. The echoes of ancestors called into the moment, traditions that help us know ourselves in the great unfolding and cycling mystery of life.
That Tuesday morning when we shrouded Myriam was probably the most powerful moment I’ve experienced at school in the five years I’ve been working on my three year degree. Myriam walked back into that room, still shaking cedar bits from her dress and took a seat with Susie and me at the front of the room, the volunteer we wanted to graciously thank for playing the part of the dead woman. And she was perfect in the role except for when those first pieces of lavender were placed upon her and she, forgetting her intended state, said “that smells so lovely!” That earned her a most gentle smile from Susie and a small head tilt and the whispered, “dead?”
In this ritual people had come forward, had told made-up stories about a person they didn’t really know, a person who wasn’t really dead. They had gathered offerings and taken her hand and spoken prayers and sung songs and they had carried her from the room, her weight heavy in the cloth they grasped. And by the end so many of them were crying, as was I. Far from, not a dry eye, there wasn’t a dry cheek. Over a person who wasn’t even dead. It was unexpected, but in the end not surprising.
I imagine you may be wondering why we’re spending today in the space of death, and of lament, and of grief. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we handle loss and lament in Unitarian communities, and wondering if there’s more we could do. While my lay chaplaincy manual at First Toronto is full of scripts and resources for a Celebration of Life, the few of these that I’ve done have been weeks if not months removed from the death. We have but one script for a graveside burial and it can’t be more than five minutes long.
It leaves me wondering what filmmaker Dr. Gina Valle would say about our practises and conventions when it comes to death.
Valle’s film Last Rites was a documentary about the death rites of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. She was inspired to make the movie out of her own grief from several years earlier when her mother had passed. In the film she tells the story of how her mother had died on a Thursday in hospital, after months of battling cancer. On Friday she was cremated, on Sunday they held a funeral service and some folks came over and told some stories and said some consoling words. And then Monday she was back at work.
For months Valle was a wreck, but she didn’t know why. She would burst into tears with no provocation, find herself pulled over by the side of the road shaking with anger, pulling away from her partner and their children. It took a long time for her to seek help, and when she did she, not surprisingly, found that her grief over her mother being so unresolved was continuing to overwhelm her emotions.
She wondered if there was something about the process of death and grief that we have failed at in the West, and so she turned to examine the practices of grief and lament from other traditions. And in them she would find all kinds of extended practices designed not just for the people who were closest to the deceased, but for the people around them.
Hindu rituals to be observed following death that were scripted for 49 days, with different prayers, different songs, and in the moments at and after death there are rites to be observed that focus on the reality of the moment.
In Jewish tradition sitting and being visited by friends and family takes place over days, and each of those days too has songs to be sung. Jewish songs of lament, sung by the women in orthodox communities when one passes, are designed not to comfort but to draw out the rawest grief, to make the loss palpable.
For Valle there were two really significant distinctions between these religious practices and the semi-Christian, mostly secular, practices of the community in which she lived. In each of these other traditions there is something intentional done in the presence of the body and there is intentional time given over to grief and to lament and to loss. And we wear the symbols of them, like those who dress in black for a year following a partner’s death, to say “I am grieving. I have lost love.” There is tradition to be enacted, rites to be performed, the script of a thousand years to be followed. So that we might know this loss in the context of all the losses that came before, in our ancestors, in our saints and in all those souls.
It is such a marked difference from our own practise where we so often treat the body as unclean, ship it for processing to a warehouse in Mississauga, and are either returned an urn or a body made up to look more alive than it did at the moment of death, a lively blush upon the cheeks. We deny the death by this practise and in our rush to return to life we deny the grief.
There was a great comic I saw a little while back about the reality of death and grief, loss and longing. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the noted Swiss psychiatrist, gave us a fantastic model for understanding grief around death, naming the stages that come, at least for those of us of a Western disposition. We begin in denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression and then acceptance. And in her model we begin at this stage and we progress from here, to here, to here, to here and out the far end we emerge reconciled to life and the new reality of life without whatever was there before.
The comic I saw illustrated Kubler-Ross’ stages as a clean, clear curve, each stage following another with predictable regularity and space. The illustration had two of these drawings side by side. And on the first was a blue line that followed the curve, and the title said “How we think another’s grief should be.” On the second was a giant mess of orange squiggles bouncing around all the stages, looping through and around itself, sometimes leaving the map entirely. This one was labelled “How we experience our own grief.”
I wish we knew better how to handle death. I wish we knew better how to make space for grief and how to sit with it with no pressure at all to move beyond it. It is as though Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief gave us the map and now we rush people along it because we now know the way and the destination. But we sacrifice so much in it, and it is not good for us.
As Susie and Myriam and I sat at the front of the room, awaiting our feedback we were instead greeted with person after person telling us who they had been thinking of when they came forward, when they sang a song, when they spoke their prayer – who it was that they were praying for and thinking of. We sat all together in that room and everyone had someone who had not been mourned, whose lament they were still struggling to sing.
We struggle as a people with grief and with loss and with lament. Myriam’s favourite song, There is More Love Somewhere is a classic African American lament, a spiritual from the days of slavery. And just a couple of years ago we UUs were asked to stop singing it, because we kept changing the words. We kept changing the words to “There is More Love Right Here.”
I’ve done it myself. It’s a wonderful sentiment, and I want it to be true, that there is more love for everyone within our walls, that there is more love in the world all about us. I’ve sung those changed lines and I have felt them to be true. But it denies the reality that some of us experience too regularly and that some of us need to experience a little more often – that the promised kindom has not yet come, that the arc of the universe has not bent fully towards justice, that we are still sad and aching with loss. And that some still are crying for justice, that not all have found enough love. We need more permission to feel our sadness, to sit in our grief, to sing our lament. And to weep.
I invite you to sing the song with me now, without the assurance that it’s right here, but with the faith that it will come or it will return, and that always we will reach out, seeking it.
You may stay seated.
I was tempted today to bring Myriam with me, to enact again that exercise, but I think that might have been a little bit much for a Sunday morning. I would however like to invite us to take a moment and reflect upon what grief, what loss we hold still. What song of lament has not yet been sung in you? On this day when so many are thinking on death, on the thin veil pulled back, are praying for loved ones, are you remembering the ancestors who came before, when so many around the world are sharing their lament, I want us to take a moment and think on our own.
I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath. And another. Take a moment and hear the song we sang echo in your mind, not the words of it, but the music in between. Another deep breath. Who comes to your mind? Whose loss do you grieve still? Think on them for a moment, and if you are so inclined I invite you to name that person aloud. For each name spoken please respond, “They are beloved always.”
On Friday we gathered some folks at our house to do a Sabbath meal, to perform the Eucharist, to share stories and to sing songs of longing and lament. Around the table each of us blessed bread and wine each in our own way and then served another all around the table. Each of us offered a prayer for a friend, or a family member, or a member of our congregation who was sick, or who had died. To the altar of that kitchen table we each brought our worries and we brought our dead and we mourned them one by one, and then we mourned them all together.
And much like in that space with Myriam, we cried a little. And then we smiled. Because we were still there and we were still loved, even in our grief.
Those people you saw are profoundly loved. They are the ancestors from whom you came, family by blood or by friendship. Share them with another.
The song of lament and the overwhelm of grief are the truest indicators that there is beauty in the world. We know that beauty and love and joy and hope and peace are all there because we lament them when they are gone. Take hope in that, make joy in that, feel grief in that – do it together. And lament, for there is beauty in that.
Blessed be and amen.
A recording of this sermon is available here.
Read sermons by: