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The word elegy comes from the Ancient Greek ἐλεγεία; from ἔλεγος, elegos, or ‘lament’ which back then was used to speak mournfully about death, war and love. Likewise the word epitaph comes from the Ancient Greek, meaning the inscription on a tombstone, epi meaning upon or over, and taphos meaning tomb. While some words evolve far from their origins, others don’t. They stay just the same, thousands of years later, perhaps because they are words about the most essential and timeless experiences people have – including mourning and preserving the memory of those we love.
The ending of life pulls our whole system out of order. It literally dismembers – pulls apart – this body which was our life with all its limbs, all its parts, all its members, our wholeness, it pulls this wholeness apart when a part, a member, is cut away by death. And all of what is left of us hurts and struggles with the loss. How can this be? Why should this be? These are the questions, and the recognitions, of the heart, that it’s not right, and then the mind comes in and says, yes, it’s not right… so there must be more. So many different answers to what that more might be: maybe samsara, the wheel of reincarnation, that we all go through on a long uneven path towards the peace and final ending that is enlightenment, or, according to Daoism, towards immortality that comes with wisdom and mastery and union with the Dao. Maybe death is not the end, maybe there’s a heaven where we all get to be together, forever, finally. Maybe there’s also a hell where those who deserve it will get theirs. Maybe death is an ascension to another plane of existence. Maybe death is the end, maybe life and death are exactly and only what they seem to be, part of the balance that makes more life – and evolution – possible, and we may make of those realities – brutal or natural as they seem to us – sometimes both – we may make of them what we will.
In the end it seems all people everywhere, whatever our experience or theology, struggle between dualities around death – acceptance or rejection of it, death as an end or death as a beginning, death as a betrayal or death as a fulfillment. Frequently when I am at services for Christian members of my extended family, the minister or priest exhorts everyone not to grieve because the deceased is now in heaven with Jesus – and I look around at the room of clearly grieving people and think ‘either a lot of people here don’t actually believe that’s true, or else they do believe it’s true, but this exhortation is meaningless anyway because Jesus’ gain is still their loss, and their loss is real and devastating, that maybe Christianity needs to find another way to try to comfort the bereaved.’
But it’s not my job to ‘fix’ Christianity, or even the ineptitudes that our own faith offers sometimes, inappropriate or inadequate things our own people say to each other as we all try to wrestle with the awfulness and awesomeness of inexorable death. Regardless of whether it is an end or a beginning, a betrayal or a fulfillment, it is still always a loss, as surely for all of us as for any Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Jew or Pagan. And so in this church, we honor this day every year, we remember and lift up again the lives and souls and names of those we have loved and lost. We remember the lessons and examples they gave us, we remember what their presence was like in our lives – and in this church, sometimes where they sat. Every space in this meeting house, where you are sitting now, even as you may be thinking of someone you cared about here and where they used to be – every space was filled with other people who sat here – or stood here in this pulpit – and remembered others who had been here before and were gone. This space is as filled as our hearts are, by those souls lost to us.
I say in every memorial service I do, this is the nature of life and loving. We live knowing we will die. And we love each other, though we know death parts us. This has become a refrain in my memorial services because it is a refrain in my own theology.
This rollercoaster of life is mighty and extraordinary. The power and attachment we feel with each other are profound and real. And yet, in the larger scheme of things, all this is breathtakingly brief and fragile, as the brilliant and deeply unwell poet 20th c. American poet Ezra Pound laid out:
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
Sometimes we rail against the injustice of death, the injustice which is death, all death, even death which feeds life, even death which makes room for new life, death which is, in the end, so necessary in this flawed system we inhabit. The ancient gnostics identified this as reflective of the essentially damaged nature of this world and this existence, this duality of body and soul, of corporeal and spiritual, which they saw not as a continuity full of promise but as a division full of fatal, literally, flaws. They could only explain the tragedy of human suffering and death by reasoning that this flawed existence had to be the creation of a flawed creator, and only by enlightenment could we ascend, in death, to the true and perfect – and timeless – plane of existence, created by a perfect creator.
Others find meaning in acceptance. One of the best acceptances I know is by Unitarian Universalist former Director of Religious Education Betsy Hill Williams, The Space Between.
There is a beginning and an end to every race that is run.
The space in between is running.
There is a beginning and an end to every game that is played.
The space in between is playing.
There is a beginning and an end to every book that is read.
The space in between is reading
Some spaces are long; some are short.
There are marathons and 50-yard dashes,
Monopoly and Tic Tac Toe,
Long chapter books and Haiku poems.
There is a beginning and an end
For everything that is alive.
The space in between is living.
She actually never speaks of dying anywhere in the poem. It’s sort of like the mourner’s kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer that is recited for the dead, which likewise makes no mention of death, but rather offers gratitude and praise and ends praying for universal peace. But in speaking – or praying – about the nature of life and its gifts, we make room also, somehow, for honoring what is sacred, and lost, to death. And in Betsy Williams’ poem, we remember that we exist not only in space but also in time, and that all time is composed of beginnings, in between, and endings – and that we find beauty and meaning in both the 50 yard dash and the marathon, in the tome and the haiku. And that is a comfort when the tome, or the haiku, was the life, the body and soul of someone precious to us.
Betsy Williams’ poem is found in this UU book for children About Death, part of a series of ‘little books about big stuff.’ Betsy is one of the editors, along with two ministers, Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, and a lay leader, Noreen Kimball. Noreen was one of my favorite people. She was an extraordinary woman – a member in my home church, much beloved by many. She was brilliant, and hilarious. She had a marvelous way with words – and with people. She was wise. She was self-destructive and sometimes unreliable – unless you were in a jam, then you could count on her 1000 percent. It was only in her own interest that she wasn’t always committed. She was more my parents’ age than mine, and spent more time with them than she did with me, but she was also my friend, and unique, irreplaceable. I still have a last voicemail from her on my phone, treasured. I was sure it was only three years ago that she died, but it was back in 2013 – so I guess I’m not resigned.
“There has passed a beauty from the earth” – William Wordsworth. “Nothing gold can stay.” – Robert Frost Poetry lifts up, like nothing else I think, the tragedy and miracle of living.
So much theology is rooted in wrestling with mortality. But much as we might wish to find an explanation, a belief, a resolution of all we experience that could reconcile us, to the losing of those we love, and the losing our own lives as well, … I’m not sure that’s got to be the ultimate goal. I’m not sure it’s not just as valuable – though also surely painful – to just embrace a sense of the absolute worth and fragility of every life. When we operate from that foundation, it makes everything about this time and our lives precious and urgent. If we do not focus on a better hereafter, but on the essential now, if we do not spend our time hoping for more later – more life, more love, more peace, more abundance, more justice, later – and in someone else’s hands, something greater than us that will manage it all, and all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well as the great medieval theologian Julian of Norwich wrote – what if it won’t? What if this is it? This life, this planet, this justice, this love, this life, this potential, is it?
If all this is ‘it’, then in the larger scheme of things, it gives us greater imperatives to live fully and to make it that all people, heck, all creatures, can live fully. And in the smaller scheme of our own lives, it gives us greater imperatives to live well and to make it that all people, heck, all creatures, can live well. Don’t put off your dream. Don’t put off your love. Don’t put off having children, or spending time with those you care about. Don’t put off the music you want to hear or create, don’t put off that art you’ve always thought about trying, the place you’ve always wanted to see, find a way. Don’t put off the difference you can make in this world so that all can share in this one shot at existence we have. Don’t put off the thing you need to say or the risk you have to take. Find the way. That’s what we owe the fragility and boundedness of all our lives. That’s what we owe those we have loved and lost and learned from. Their legacy is our living. They taught us to love; what will we do with our hearts, how will we honor them? They taught us to cook, to clean, to think, to care, to work, to sacrifice – this is the stuff of life, poured into our hands, poured into our lives, for our own living and for us to pour into others, the stream of life, living water that moves in and through us, this is what transcends time even when, if, we ourselves do not.
Reconciliation may be what we yearn for when our hearts are broken at the loss of those we love, but reconciliation will not fire our living nor our loving. What if instead we cast our lot with Edna St. Vincent Millay, another ‘word caster of live coals of love,’ with her fierce resistance that she channeled into her art and her living. She used her not-resignedness – her outrage – to remind us all that it is outrageous that this happens to us all – it is outrageous – and it is real – and that the best is lost, again and again. We ourselves will be lost. And even in our not-resignedness, we can still find an answer in Betsy Williams’ poem, in life, in gratitude, we stand and rise. We remember, we lift up and pass on the best that has been lost. It was given to us, into our keeping.
‘Remember’ – the etymology of which is not the same as dismember. Dismember means to pull or cut apart, from the latin dis – apart and membrum – limb. But remember comes from a different latin rootfrom rememorari, and it has always meant , to call again to mind. Even the etymology knows that remembering will never call our loved ones back to life. But remembering and mourning alone are not enough, we have to give our remembering form, to look past the reality of etymology to the reality of the heart. No one lives forever but we hand on the living of those we have lost, and we hand our own living, best of everyone’s living, that ultimate and most powerful gift we are ever given, the best gift we can give, these are our own live coals of love, when the fire has died out, they glow with warmth and power from which new fires will light. Amen.