A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
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Well, it’s surely hard – or fate – to be preaching this sermon in the wake of losing one of my two beloved dogs. Joey, my big, strong, younger dog, got out of the house and was struck by a hit and run driver, and his back was broken last Thursday evening. Our family is still reeling and will be for a while. Before I say anything else, let me say that I am so aware that many in this hall of our people have suffered far worse losses in the past year, than I. If my own loss was even worse, no doubt I would not be able to mention it at all – certainly not so soon. Mine does not approach what some of us have suffered, but it is enough, together with my involvement in two losses in this congregation so far this year – they have grown my sense of this community and our people here. So it certainly hits home to be in deep, immediate grief on this day we honor our love and grief and respect for those we have lost from this church, from our families, from our lives. With my own loss added, my reflections run strongly along the path of divining and evaluating what happens after death for we who are the living and the left behind.
Given that this week has been what it’s been, I want to lift up some of what I said at a memorial service last Thursday for a daughter of this congregation, and some of what I often say at memorial services. “The more we love, the more we fear.” wrote the insightful 19th century American leader and thinker Robert Ingersoll. “Upon the tenderest heart, the deepest shadow falls.” His words are deeply true. The more we love, the more we fear. And the more we love, the more we weep.
What I preached last Thursday, not knowing what would be coming my way later that day, was ultimately we live life in the face of death, and we love each other, though we know death parts us. Will part us all. When you think about it that way, love is not just instinctual or joyous or one of the best things about being a creature with the capacity to love, apart from all that, love is courageous. It’s more than just a risk. Because even the best love, the most lasting love, will break our hearts in the end when we are bereft.
That’s not a reason not to love – I’m the last person to ever preach that. But it’s a reason to honor the bravery of love. The connection of one person with another, one soul with another, the opening of one soul to another, is as deep, as holy, as powerful as life gets. No wonder such capacities as sacrifice, justice, lifelong commitment, children, family, come along with it. Nothing less would even make sense.
But it is also true that while we are truly bereft when we lose one we love – and this is one of the worst experiences in life – it is also true that having known and loved another means they hold a place in your memory, and not just in your memory but in your living – because we are changed by those we love, we learn from them, we respond to them, we are different in small or large ways because of the experience of having them in our lives. They really do become part of us, we hand each other on in a chain of relationship and generations, not only genetically but experientially, in ways that are utterly real.
The American undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch says something about:
“There are distinctions to be made between notions of medical death or metabolic death, social death, spiritual death, and actual death as far as your family is concerned. I might know, for example, that after a cremation, we end up with, say, fourteen pounds of bone fragment and dessicated tissue that we can put in a box and hand to the family, but when you see the elderly sister come to claim the ashes of a sister whose own children couldn’t come and get her, when she bears the box like viaticum, when she walks out to the car, flips the button to open the trunk, and then reconsiders and goes to the back door and opens it up, and then thinks better of it and closes it again, when she goes to the front-seat passenger door, opens it up, places the box on the front seat, and then clicks a seat belt around it, you can see that whether we are remnant of icon or relic is not up to you or me. It’s up to the living who bear us in their memory and, in fact, bear our mortality, because we are humans, tied to the humus, this layer of earth from which our monuments and our homes and our histories rise up.”
Clinical and anecdotal analyses of mourning, everything from Freud to C.S. Lewis’ self-reportage in A Grief Observed, tell us that grief sends us out of our ordinary living. Perhaps in keeping with the quickened pace of life in the last century, perhaps in keeping with America’s focus on frontiers and the future, perhaps in keeping with our modern mania for youth and all that comes with it like hope and renewal, we have increasingly begun to emphasize limits to grief and the grieving process. We assign artificial durations: one year, five years – so many years for this kind of loss, so many years for that kind of loss. We assign stages and seek to move dutifully through them as if they are stepping stones on a genteel garden path we can hardly miss, rather than the anguished casting about of psyches in a wilderness that is overwhelming and terrifying. The stories we moderns tell of epic love and loss come from Shakespeare or opera or Broadway; we don’t expect them in our lives or those of our neighbors. No one dies of a broken heart anymore, do they?
Actually, ‘they’ do. We do. We humans sicken and even die of grief all the time. If we don’t believe it from the timeless art that tells us so, then we can look to insurance statistics, which relate that family and close friends of someone who has died are at quite discernibly greater risk for accidents and illness, including death. We lose our jobs, we lose our relationships, we become estranged or self-destructive… all manner of things happen to us after losing someone we love and what happens depends on lots of factors including the exact nature of the loss, our family systems, our life experience, our class, our health insurance, and more.
All that is true, but we no longer acknowledge it much. Indeed, many of our most potent forms of western grieving are ancient, not modern. Ancient is the tradition that everything stops to take care of the dead and the mourning, modern is the custom that we get cremated, saving space on the planet and the need to deal with the body as part of the mourning ceremony, and we urge our loved ones to hold a memorial service at some later time that will be convenient for all.
I went once to a traditional Jewish funeral for the relative of a close friend. The funeral director came and pinned a ribbon to each of our tasteful dark outfits and then made a small rip in the ribbon. The torn ribbon symbolizes rent clothing, the kind of rending of your clothing that goes along with tearing at your hair and collapsing and wailing in grief – that’s biblical right? That’s biblical or maybe Eastern or maybe something else – but it’s not us. It’s not what we do. What if we witnessed someone doing that? Would we feel we were seeing someone expressing grief to the point of anguish, or would we rather feel that such a display was a little over the top and they probably need care, maybe a doctor, maybe a sedative, some kind of control? Don’t we admire, even if we also worry for, people who go through terrible loss with their act together? Isn’t that why every time I am working on a memorial service or funeral with a family, the question always, always comes up as to whether someone can get up and speak because they’re afraid they might ‘lose it’ – which generally means cry, lose their ability to speak easily, or otherwise show what they’re going through. We may not be a society that hires professional mourners who can really lift up the spirit of the thing, but why should we always be so concerned that we not ‘lose it’ in public? Or maybe even in private? What would be so terrible? What would we think if we were in the congregation or when we have been in the congregation, and saw someone go up to speak and struggle to get through what they wanted to say? Or even fail to complete what they wanted to say? I have seen it, and what I think is something like this : that is a brave person, this is such a hard thing to do, they are in pain, I too am in pain, partly for them… what in that is not what we would want?
Gender stereotypes and stiff-upper-lipping it aside, what a relief it must be to express your grief that way. When the funeral director tore my ribbon and I learned why, I thought: one day, if I am ever that grieved, I will go ahead and tear my clothes and wear them torn – this contained, formal, clean little symbol only points to what should be – what we should feel free to do – which is not about small, tasteful, elegant references to agony.
I have no universal prescription for going through grief and mourning and living after the death of someone we have loved. Each of us walks our own path and my way is not yours and yours is not another’s and on some parts of our paths we meet and on others we diverge. But whatever the details of our journeys of loss and grief, of healing and of what never goes away, remembering, and how we remember, are crucial.
On a “This I Believe” segment on National Public Radio, someone spoke about their commitment to remembering well as almost an antidote to death. Death is a form of oblivion. That is its greatest injustice. For all the attention we pay to these vessels, our bodies, what matters most is our souls. That a living soul, full of such passion and fear and longing and courage and beauty and love should disappear, in every sense, from this realm of existence however much we care, however much we have left to give, however cruelly or young or unready we may die, is literally incomprehensible. And yet it is true and inescapable, even for the famous and learned.
This oblivion is the root of much in religion – to all of us left behind, over and over again, and so full ourselves of those precious intangibles which now include memories of the one disappeared, it is impossible to understand or to reconcile ourselves. We may accept it because it is clearly the brute way of this world, but we cannot understand it.
We have few choices regarding any of this, but one broad, benevolent, healing choice that is available to us all who love and are bereft, is to remember. Even when what we carry is not only love and loss but also conflicts and resentments, remembering is a good thing. We do not need to sterilize our memories – they ought to be real. And we may not have our loved one there to work out painful issues with, but we can work on ourselves to make peace with what we know and remember. This can be true even for someone who caused us more pain than joy, who hurt us more than they helped us. And it is surely true for those who mainly helped us, and loved us back, the best they could.
Memory books, photo albums, annual trips to the graveyard, visits to a special place, taking a breath to remember them when a certain song comes on — almost anything can be a ritual of remembrance. Whatever form that remembering takes, it works against the obliterating power of death.
To a point. There is no way we can truly hold the loved one with us still. As Joan Didion writes at the end of her book about her year after her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, The Year of Magical Thinking: “I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account…. I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table.” (TYMT, p. 224-226)
To all this, the only thing I would add is: make the most of your time with those you love. Try to have as few regrets as possible. I cannot stress that enough, in this world that keeps us busy and asks so much of us. Make the most of your time with those you love and try to end up with as few regrets as possible. It’s a simple recommendation, but as many of us know, that doesn’t make it an easy one.
At most of the memorial services I do, I close with words like these:
We recommit ourselves to our lives and our work,
to the tragedy and miracle of love,
to the imperatives and grace of life.
It’s so often part of my conclusion because it is what we have. At times this feels inadequate to our longings and still it is no small thing to attempt. It is an act of courage. Live. Love. Mourn. Remember….Repeat. It is a simple, sobering, noble litany. We do it over and over again for those who grace our lives and leave us, and we can only hope that when our turn comes, others will do it for us. Amen.
Welcome to this community of faith, of love, of memory and of hope. This annual service is a beloved tradition where we remember those we have loved and lost from this community and from our own lives and hearts. How good to be together, especially for this, when we know that the bonds of relationship and care are such an important part of being able to move on from the death of one knew and cherished. So welcome, especially today, to every one of you, longtime member, newcomer, neighbor, friend. It is good to be together. May we make the very most of this day, starting now, together.
We kindle this chalice, and hallow this hour, with gratitude for the light of love that shines in our lives, indeed that shines brightest in the darkest time.
May our memories shine bright as our love. May they ease our hurt and loss. May we ease each others’ hurt and loss. In the end love is our greatest treasure – may we share it well.