“We Remember Them”
Rev. Julie Kain
Once a year in Mexico, death is celebrated in the midst of life.
Each autumn, the living invite their dead to join them in the festival of the Days of the Dead, Los Dias de Los Muertos.
Starting late in the afternoon on November 1st, families converge on the cemeteries to sit and wait for their arrival in the night. Candles are lit for their souls, marigold petals have been laid out to show the way, treasured belongings, food and drink are offered to welcome them back.
Strolling musicians play familiar and favorite tunes as families and friends alternately socialize and reflect upon the memories of their dearly departed. Families have already cleaned and repaired the grave sites in anticipation of their arrival. Decoration with paint and flowers have been added.
By midnight, the cemetery is filled with candles flickering in the windy autumn night. The beloved dead are invited to return home again.
People since ancient timese have made a ceremony of tending graves.
Can we make time in our busy modern lives to make a ceremony and a solemn commitment to tend our memories…to tend and clear and clean…the memories of those we love, our own beloved dead?
In the short time that I have been serving as your minister among you, I have seen that you are a loving people, a loving community of both memory and hope, and I see this in part by how you honor the lives of your loved ones who have died.
In the past year this community has known not a small number of deaths. We also occasionally suffer another kind of loss; we lose members, precious parts of our community, at times to their relocations to other places. We will know more of this loss in coming months.
Today though, as Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate the fullness of our community and the fullness of our individual lives by recognizing all of those who have helped to shape our lives and are no longer with us. As Unitarian Universalists, we recognize the interdependent web of all life which holds us and which holds all whom we love.
I know that I have been changed by the loss of loved ones in my life. I know that not only have I been changed by this loss, but my life and its course have been dramatically touched and shaped by loss.
As it should be.
We all know that our time on this earth is relatively short in the larger scheme of things. But, wouldn’t you agree, that it isn’t until we are in a time of impending death or in a time of having just lost someone close to us that we become intensely aware of the preciousness of life?
It puts things into a different perspective, doesn’t it? We are given the opportunity to notice just how much we take for granted in this life.
I feel strongly that one very important role our UU congregations have is to provide a place where we can be together with our questions and our experiences of death. Our culture makes it so difficult to grieve openly. So at the times when we most need the loving presence of others in our lives, we often find ourselves quite isolated.
Even though we have broken through the taboo in our culture about talking about sex, it seems talk of death and dying is still nearly as taboo a subject as talking about money.
Despite the fact that my own life has been dramatically altered by the death of loved ones, I rarely talk about it. Frankly, the depth of their impact on my life is sometimes hard to consciously recognize at all. It has become a part of my internal landscape which has been altered by the events of time and somehow I have adapted.
It doesn’t cease to amaze me, just how resilient we humans can be. Not all the time, but as a general rule – we figure out how to go on even in situations in which we feel with every cell of our being that we just might not make it through.
Sometimes I think about the toll that war has taken on our lives, especially because like death on the whole, it can be an invisible presence in our lives, nonetheless affecting everything.
We have had generations of people whose lives were dramatically altered by the presence of war and yet most of those histories remain unspoken. The presence of current wars is difficult to even acknowledge. We almost never give people a chance to talk about how war affects them personally.
Since the time of my surrogate grandfather’s death in 1991, the death that was my first deep loss and which led me through the doors of my first Unitarian Universalist church, I have had other deaths that have touched me deeply.
The death of my father in 1997 to cancer gave me a big opportunity to address much unfinished business in my life. The strength and personal insight I gained through that difficult process eventually led me to one of the biggest decisions of my life, the risk and privilege of entering the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
Three years ago my sister-in-law Karen also died from cancer. To see a young person valiantly fight against a terminal disease also changed me. This year I am the age she was when she died. When my life seems weighted down by worries and responsibilities, I remember that she is no longer with us and I am grateful simply to be alive. I try to be grateful for the richness of the struggles I know, along with the simple pleasures of life; the crisp air today, the smiles and hugs when I come to church, the beauty of the changing seasons.
Another death that pushed me to my limits was the violent suicide of my former partner’s best friend, just a month after my sister in law had passed.
When I had done my pastoral counseling residence in seminary at a regional trauma center, the most difficult situation I found myself in was being with the family and friends of a young person who had attempted suicide and who did not survive the attempt, after spending several grueling days in the hospital.
And when my former partner was traumatized by the death of his best friend since childhood, I was pulled closer into a most painful process of soul searching, of trying to make sense of a situation that simply felt impossible to accept.
There are times, my friends, when the fabric of our lives is torn irreparably. Although some of us are fortunate to experience a gradual healing, the scars on our psyches are always there, always sensitive to the touch, always present in us with a painful longing for what has been lost.
Today in this room I doubt that there are many who have not experienced a deep loss in their life of someone close to them.
Although it can be painful to remember the difficult times, sometimes not making a space for that in our memories can actually lead to forgetting the good times, the precious moments, the deep connections we have shared with others.
For those of us who have walked the lonely road through our grief, eventually the pain subsides and what we continue to carry with us are the precious memories of our loved one.
I now invite each of you to bring to your mind’s eye and into the presence of your heart, the memory of a loved one who has helped to shape your life and who is no longer with us. Let us hold their names and at the end of the reading I’m about to share written by UU minister Kathleen McTigue – you will be asked to name them aloud.
#721 They Are With Us Still
In the struggles we choose for ourselves, in the ways we move forward in our lives and bring our world forward with us,
It is right to remember the names of those who gave us strength in this choice of living. It is right to name the power of hard lives well lives.
We share a history with those lives.
We belong to the same motion.
They too were strengthened by what had gone before. They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.
Those who lived before us, who struggles for justice and suffered injustice before us, have not melted into the dust, and have not disappeared.
They are with us still.
The lives they lived hold us steady.
Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves. Their courage and love evoke our won.
We, the living, carry them with us: we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.
We take them with us, and with them choose the deeper path of living.
(Let us name those who l end strength in our lives.)
Amen and Blessed Be.