Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Remembering death, sanctity, and the Fall Holy Days

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below.

I was in college when the television show “Six Feet Under” came out on HBO. I don’t remember who first turned me on to it, but I remember watching it on DVD through Netflix. And I remember that I was hooked on the very first episode.

The show itself tells the story of a family who owns a funeral home, interspersing the drama of the characters’ lives with that of people who die at the beginning of each episode.

For me, the show became a powerful meditation on life and death. I often say that the show did more to help me come to terms with the nature of death and dying than any class I took in college or in seminary.

I think one of the reasons the show was so powerful for me — and proved to be such a critical success — was that it acknowledged the way our society has anesthetized death and dying. In times not that long ago, when someone died, it was the family who would wash the body. The person would lie in state in the home as friends and relatives came to visit. The funeral liturgy was an acknowledgment of the grief caused by the separation of death and the reception afterward (often a wake) was the place where people would then gather to tell stories about the person who had died. After the funeral, people would continue to visit the grave because they usually lived most of their lives within traveling distance of where their loved ones were buried.

So much of that has changed now. Much of the current industry surrounding death and dying seems at times to be an attempt to feign continued life. Cosmetic work in the funeral industry seeks to give the appearance that the departed is only sleeping. We have taken the whole length of various rituals surrounding grief and compressed them into one event: the Memorial Service at the Funeral Home, where professionals care for the body, enable a visitation at the funeral home if the family desires, and then hold a memorial service right there. Many contemporary burial customs involve not actually burying the body at the cemetery, but leaving the casket above ground, hiding the dirt underneath a green carpet so that we don’t have to think about what happens next.

Now, I want to be clear, our own local funeral homes are excellent institutions, run primarily by local people who strive to provide support in a time of grief and pain. In many ways, though, they have to operate in and among a society that increasingly wishes to deny the realities of death. Their work to help people through the death of a loved one is admirable.

All of these realities are why I find this time in the traditional church year to be a deeply meaningful time in my own life. In the same way that Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday are known as the Great Triduum (or Great Three Days), so this time in the fall is often seen as its own Triduum.

Last night, commonly known as Halloween, derives its name from All Hallows’ Eve; or, in modern English, All Saints’ Eve. That is, Oct. 31 is the eve of the Feast of All Saints Day on Nov. 1. It is a time that was traditionally spent in prayer and preparation for the great feast.

All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 is the day in which the great Communion of Saints is celebrated. This is not, as some think, all those who have died. Rather, this feast developed as a way to acknowledge that there are a great many more saints — people whose lives manifest the full transformative power of God’s grace — than there will ever be recognized on any calendar of saints.

Thursday is All Souls’ Day, is the day in which the church remembers all those who have died. It is traditional on All Souls’ Day to have a Requiem Eucharist — that is, a service of Holy Communion in which we pray for all those who have died, continuing to commend them to the care and love of God. For many people, attending the Requiem Eucharist on All Souls’ Day is a tremendous opportunity for healing, particularly when the death was recent.

At my own parish, our experience of this fall Triduum has been deepened by our Latino members. Now, on the Sunday before this day, our Latino and Anglo members gather together in our side chapel to make a Día de los Muertos altar — an altar to celebrate the Day of the Dead (the above-mentioned All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2). We decorate the altar and place upon it pictures of our loved ones. It is a common custom to leave small gifts on the altar — pieces of their favorite food or drink — as a gesture of love and care.

All of the older traditions of the church around these days — traditions that have developed differently in many different cultures — are ways in which we honestly acknowledge the painful reality of death, the loss and grief that is natural when someone we love leaves this mortal plain. And yet, these traditions proclaim the Christian hope that life is only changed in death — it is not ended.

So, we celebrate All the Saints of the church, knowing that their examples continue to inspire us, rejoicing that they now exist in the presence of the God they served. We remember all those who have died on All Souls, the Day of the Dead. We pray for them now just as we prayed for them when they are alive — because we know they have not ceased to exist, rather their life and journey has simply changed.

We are invited by the church to observe these days as a bold proclamation of our Christian hope and as an expression of our longing for the day when all of creation, all those who have died and who have lived, are finally bound together in the love of God.