© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen
It is as natural to die as to be born… Francis Bacon
We love life; we do not fear death, because we understand that life and death are necessary to each other. Pearl S. Buck
Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid. Langston Hughes
When we have learned to accept ourselves as part of the community of nature, then we can accept death as part of the natural order of things. Ernest Morgan
A telling of a Wintu tale about why people die, “The Road to Olelpanti”, found in Long Ago in Many Lands, by Sophia Lyon Fahs, and Creation Myths of Primitive America, recorded by Jeremiah Curtin, 1898, at www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/cma/cma07.htm)
I love the fall season because I am drawn to its amazing range of colors. Russet red and burnished gold maple leaves, bright yellow chrysanthemum flowers, chocolate brown tree branches, and brilliant orange pumpkins that mimic the colors of fire. I feel warm just looking at them. Although spring is the season of birth and hope, I find the fall season one of glorious comfort.
Of course, this array of colors reflects the dying season. Blown by the wind and chilly temperatures fiery leaves drop, branches turn skeletal, flowers wither, and pumpkins begin to rot. These annual natural changes reflect the life cycle of all living things—a truth we must face: we are born to die. In her poem, “Life After Death,” author Laura Gilpin reflects on this cycle:
These things I know:
How the living go on living
And how the dead go on living with them
So that in a forest
Even a dead tree casts a shadow
And the leaves fall one by one
And the branches break in the wind
And the bark peels off slowly
And the trunk cracks
And the rain seeps in through the cracks
And the trunk falls to the ground
And the moss covers it
And in the spring the rabbits find it
And build their nest
inside the dead tree
So that nothing is wasted in nature
Or in love.[Laura Gilpin, from her poem “Life After Death,” in The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.), 18.]
“Nothing is wasted in nature or in love.” Death visibly gives rise to new life in the natural world around us, a world in which we are interdependent. Life requires death for what is dead provides the material upon which the living depend. Nutrients from a formerly living plant or animal transfer to a currently living thing. Death gifts life. /
Today is the Sunday closest to All Hallow’s Eve, All Soul’s and All Saint’s Days. It is no coincidence that these three holy days exist at a time when death surrounds us in nature. Religions worldwide observe at least one day a year to consider death. We UUs in Athens also create a holy day to remember loved ones who have died, and to call attention to our own eventual death. That day is today.
Yesterday, 20 of you attended “Living While Dying”, a documentary featuring several people with a terminal illness approaching death—living while aware of their dying. Although those 20 came willing to discuss it, many in our culture and perhaps in this room, avoid talking about death, especially their own. Avoidance allows us to pretend death won’t come knocking.
If we’re relatively sound in body and mind, we don’t wish for death. Life seems too short to love and be loved, and explore and experience all life has to offer. But as Coyote explained in the earlier tale, living forever is a questionable proposition. If no one died, no one would need to be born. Courage and bravery couldn’t exist if death were not a risk. Life might feel shallow if it was endless. We may never lose our fear of death, but accepting it is easier when we realize the alternative.
But what about life after death? Because we have no definitive idea of what awaits us upon death, and because we don’t relish the finality of our own ending, many dream of something more. Whether it’s karma and reincarnation, heaven or hell, Valhalla, or some other afterlife, most religions promise an afterlife. Besides doctrinal reasoning, there are these:
- For those not rewarded or punished in this life, it offers a final, deserving act of justice
- For those who suffer and struggle in this life, it’s a place that promises happiness
- For those fearing the end of life and separation from loved ones, it makes death less frightening by promising reunions
- For religious leaders, it provides controls on behavior and rewards for martyrs
- And for those who feel connected to spirits or ghosts, it gives support to the idea that a soul or spirit lives on after the body’s end
For both practical and emotional purposes, death can be ultimately defeated by what religions promise comes after.
For those who find it difficult to believe in some idea of an afterlife, reincarnation, or eternal spiritual existence beyond the realm of natural law, know that we can live forever through the natural order of things.
All that exists comes from the cosmos, from star birth and death. Our bodies consist of elements found throughout the universe. Our earth-bound lives depend on consuming nutrients, even the very air we breathe, from growing, living natural organisms. Our Seventh Principle asserts a capital “T” truth: we are interdependent with all that exists. Upon our death, we will return to the earth and the stars that gave us birth. Our remains will nurture some other creature—plant, animal or human. Nature’s recycling offers us eternal life.
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong suggests God should be newly understood as not some supernatural being out there, separate from us, but within all living things, the oneness of all present in all. He believes the more we foster life and love one another, the more we’ll experience this eternal oneness, or God. At our death we’ll just merge into this great unity, like a drop of water into an ocean. [Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision, pages 154-156]
Late Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Gilbert, whom I also quoted last week, is worthy of being remembered again today. In his poem, “Life, Death, Time and the Space Between the Stars,” he writes:
On this cusp of the seasons we are moved
To consider life and death, time and the space between the stars.
This playful dance of winter and spring,
Howling winds of winter one day
And warming rays of sun the next,
Simply remind us we are not in charge of the seasons.
They trifle with us and go their own capricious ways.
We measure time in our precise human style,
Unable to imagine how brief is our time on the eternal clock,
How few our days on the cosmic calendar.
When we are at our best, we know time is short, precious,
And to be treasured as much fine gold.
We acknowledge our finitude.
We tell ourselves to be humble despite temptations to false pride,
To understand our tiny niche in the great scheme of things,
To celebrate the one and only life granted to us.
We come together as we float through the heavens,
Precariously perched on this whirling orb of earth
Unaware of our tenuous planetary position,
Content simply to be alive to enjoy the grand spectacle of Creation.
We come gladly to celebrate life and death,
Time and the space between the stars—
To drink in the mystery,
To partake of the beauty,
To relish the gift of life so graciously bestowed upon us.[“Life, Death, Time and the Space between the Stars” (after Robert Ardrey in African Genesis), by Richard S. Gilbert, from Thanks Be for These, a meditation manual.]
“To relish the gift of life so graciously bestowed upon us.” Life is a gift we did not ask for, but were given nonetheless. Gifts should be treated well. Treasure your life. Be afraid, not of death, but of not living while you have the chance.
To help you live more fully, Buddhist tradition suggests we contemplate our death five times a day. Though less frequent, memorial services and holy day observances serve a similar purpose: to remind us to live while we can. Facing death should wake us up to life.
Even as we live, hold close your memories of loved ones who’ve gone before you. Grieve your losses, for grief testifies to your love. Be together in community for the support through tough times we all need. And, be comforted that whatever may happen on the other side of this life, you will have eternal life with the trees, the flowers, and even the pumpkins. Eternal blessings to you.
Questions for Reflection & Discussion
- In what way/s do you remember someone you loved or felt close to who has gone away or died?
- What gives you comfort when facing the death of a loved one or your own inevitable death?
- If someone offered you an “immortality pill” so that you could live forever, would you take it? Explain.
- Do you discuss death, yours or in general, with family or friends? Why or why not? How do you feel about that?