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What are we to make of death?

Unitarian Universalists often describe ourselves as being more concerned with how we live than what happens after we die, and as being more interested in creating salvation (or healing) in this life than looking for it in the next. And yet, all of us must deal with the disturbing reality that we and all those we love will eventually be lost to death. How do we make sense of that inevitable loss?

Facing cancer with lessons learned from my parishioners.

By Forrest Church

Although I have delivered some thousand sermons on almost as many discrete topics, one way or another each circles back to a single theme. This tendency, I’m told, is not uncommon. Every minister worth his or her salt has one great sermon in them. It’s no wonder that we return time and again to its familiar music and uplifting chords.

Whether great or no, my recurring sermon is rich with mystery. Time and again, I return to the abiding themes of love and death.

I do so now for personal reasons. After enjoying a year of fine health, in late January 2008 I learned that my cancer had recurred, having spread to my lungs and liver. There is no way to sugarcoat this news. I must face the certainty that my cancer is terminal and the great likelihood that my future will be measured in months, not years.

Though all of our stories end in the middle, with unfinished business piled high, I should like to end my story, if I may, by sharing what I have learned about love and death from the members of All Souls Church during the three decades I have been privileged to serve as their minister. Time and again, at their loved ones’ deathbeds and together in my study, we have struggled to wrench meaning from loss, seeking to find our way through the valley of the shadow. Rarely acknowledging to themselves (or even sensing) their great courage and remarkable insight, on occasions such as these they have taught me the lessons of a lifetime.

One of the longtime members of All Souls Church, Damon Brandt, has compiled a stunning book of photographs, a series of candid portraits that he took of his father in his deathbed, with nurses and family at the bedside or waiting in the wings. Click here. Called simply, Hospice, and free of textual adornment, Damon’s unsentimental yet deeply moving record touches the heart. Why does it move those who never knew Damon’s father? Because his death is our death, too. We are never closer than when we ponder the great mystery that beats at the heart of our shared being.

When grandparents, parents, even children died at home, death was an inescapable presence in our lives. Today, shielded from intimacy with death by the cold, mechanically invasive and antiseptic chambers of hospitals, we lose touch with how natural, even sacramental, death can be. If we insulate ourselves from death we lose something precious, a sense of life that knows death, that elevates human to humane, that reconciles human being with human loss.

The word human has a telling etymology: human, humane, humility, humus. Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another. All true meaning is shared meaning.

I’ve said I didn’t become a minister until I performed my first funeral. When dying comes calling at the door, like a bracing wind it clears our being of pettiness. It connects us to others. More alert to life’s fragility, we reawaken to life’s preciousness. To be fully human is to care, and attending to death prompts the most eloquent form of caring imaginable.

When those we love die, a part of us dies with them. When those we love are sick, we too feel the pain. Yet all of this is worth it. Especially the pain. Grief and death are sacraments, or can be. A sacrament symbolizes communion, the act of bringing us together. To comfort another is to bring her our strength. To console is to be with him in his aloneness. To commiserate is to share her pain.

The act of releasing a loved one from all further obligations as he lies dying—to tell him it’s all right, that he is safe, that we love him and he can go now—is life’s most perfect gift, the final expression of unconditional love. We let go for dear life.

Adversity doesn’t always bring out the best in people. But the reason it so often does is because adversity forces us to work within tightly drawn limits. Everything within those limits is heightened. We receive as gifts things we tend to take for granted. For a brief, blessed time, what matters to us most really does matter.

Yet, how do we respond, when we get a terminal sentence? Far too often with, “What did I do to deserve this?”

Nothing. The answer is, “Nothing.” Against unimaginable odds, we have been given something that we didn’t deserve at all, the gift of life, with death as our birthright.

Unless we armor our hearts, we cannot protect ourselves from loss. We can only protect ourselves from the death of love. Yet without love, nothing matters. Break your life into a million pieces and ask yourself what of any real value might endure after you are gone. The pieces that remain will each carry love’s signature. Without love, we are left only with the aching hollow of regret, that haunting emptiness where love might have been.

Such is the story that unfolds frame by frame in Damon’s book. A man is dying. He has been given but a few sweet days to live. His wife and children gather at his bedside. They reminisce. They hold hands. They laugh. They cry. They wait. Their hearts tremble with love.

In face of a terminal diagnosis, by the way, the only question worth asking is “Where do we go from here?” And part of its answer must include the word “together.” Everyone suffers. Yet not everyone despairs. Despair is a consequence of suffering only when affliction cuts us off from others. It need not. The same suffering that leads one person to lose all sense of meaning can as easily promote empathy, the felt experience of another’s pain. Hope is woven into the lifelines that connect us. As Damon’s book demonstrates so vividly, to see our own tears reflected in another’s eyes is the most holy of intimacies. We enter the sacred realm of the heart, where the one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.

Damon’s pictures tell life’s deepest story. And each carries the same meaning. The most eloquent answer to death’s “no” is love’s “yes.”

For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. Even the one in a million sperm’s connection with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here.

What a luxury we enjoy, wondering what will happen after we die, even what will happen before we die. Having spent billions of years in gestation, present in all that preceded us—fully admitting the pain and difficulty involved in actually being alive, able to feel and suffer, grieve and die—we can only respond in one way: with awe and gratitude.

We see little of the road ahead or the sky above. And the dust we raise clouds our eyes, leaving only brief interludes to contemplate the stars. All we can do, every now and again, is to stop for a moment and look.

Look. Morning has broken, and we are here, you and I, breathing the air, admiring the slant sun as it refracts through these magnificent, pellucid windows and dances in motes of dust above the pews, calling us to attention, calling us homeward.

Dust to dust.

Heart to heart.

The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church died at home on Thursday, September 24, 2009. This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of UU World.

Adapted from a sermon delivered February 3, 2008, to All Souls Church, New York.


Barbara PescanI collect stones, and now also beach glass, as we walk with our dog along the lake. When we moved to Evanston I jettisoned many pounds of rocks from other places—Berkeley, Big Sur, Provincetown, Ferry Beach, Star Island—and kept only a few. I forget where most have come from, but when I look at them and hold them, I cherish the sense of history and pleasure emanating from the colors and textures of their faces.

This winter, as the anniversary of my dad’s death approached, I wondered what I would feel. He had been diminishing for twenty years through the slow erasure that was his Alzheimer’s disease, so when he died, I cried, but I had wept so deeply so many times before, I felt my mourning must be over. So, in January and February, I wondered. Then I forgot about it.

I began to miss Connecticut like crazy—the walks in the forested hills near our house, the little house itself, with its too-much yard work, and its constant needs for fixing we just didn’t have the skills or time for. My sadness grew, and I couldn’t figure it out: I am happy here, I love the lake and our apartment, and I love this church and congregation. But I felt such a mournful missing of that home.

When March 2nd came, I understood that missing Connecticut was mourning my dad again! It had come at me sideways, but that’s what it was. When he was my age and younger, and healthy, he loved hiking with our various dogs. When he mowed the lawn, I was sent ahead to clear the way of sticks and stones.

Imperfect putterer that he was, he could spend a whole day figuring out some home maintenance problem—taking lots more time than you’d think a mechanical engineer would need, probably enjoying the solitariness of problem and material—being with himself.

Dad also collected stones—on his walks his eye would be caught by some small wonder and he would take it up to bring home to show it to me, and to keep it.

I am my father’s daughter—all our arguments and misunderstandings notwithstanding, that is who I am. And, though he is dead, he lives on in me—in my memory and in my gestures, in the things with which I struggle, in my collections of small wonders, and in my enjoyment of poetry and music, even in my voice, this aging soprano sweetness that his tenor genes, combined with my mother’s alto genes, passed on to me.

If this is not resurrection, I do not know what is. Bodies do not survive death. If minds and souls do, I do not know where they gather. But I know that love is stronger than the grave. It survives, and it abides, and all the dead rise again and again in us, giving themselves to us for as long as we will receive them. Happy Easter—may it  arrive, and you know it truly.


A few shovel fulls
of earth
await humbly.
Dark brown as only
earth can be—
dug from the fragrant depths.
How shall we live
this life?
And isn’t it
much grander
than this in the end?
No—the splendor
is right here,
in the dirt,
in the soil
that can grow
all we need
and without fanfare.
With or without us,
it nourishes life
And so
I shall go, in time, as all
and greet
this sustaining
with gratitude
and pray I
am worthy
and have served
her well.

by Melitta Haslund, consulting minister, Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, from For All That Is Our Life, a meditation anthology edited by Gene and Helen Pickett, published by Skinner House in 2005.

Wilted flowerI would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted, perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.

by May Sarton (1912-1995) as quoted in WELCOME: A Unitarian Universalist Primer. Published by Skinner House Books in 2009


Meg RileyEight years ago, my mother died from ovarian cancer. It was one of the greatest blessings of my life to be able to spend the last few weeks of her life caring for her as tenderly as she had cared for me in my earliest, most vulnerable time on earth.

Those last days I spent with her, as we drew nearer and nearer to her last breath, resembled two prior experiences in my life—waiting for a baby to be born, spliced together with caring for a new infant. It must have felt the same way to my mother. One afternoon she gestured across the room. “Something important is written on that paper on the wall! Give it to me!” “This?” I asked. “The wall calendar?” I handed to her and watched while she scoured the tiny numbered boxes. “It’s not on here!” she said. “Why isn’t my due date on here?”

Time as we normally understood it was a meaningless concept. Moments stretched into eons; days blurred into one another. There was no predicting or controlling how long the vigil would last. Only one thing was clear, stated by each hospice staff member who visited: People die when they are ready to die. There are no formulas to determine when death will happen. There was a palpable sense that we were waiting for an extraordinary moment, waiting for a gateway to open between the visible world of earthly living and the infinite world of stars and canyons, the mystery from which we are born and to which we return.

On one of my mother’s last days on earth, as her mind had already begun to diffuse, she spent several hours gazing at a photograph of herself, cheek to cheek with my daughter. The photograph was taken right after we had learned that the cancer was back with a vengeance, and she informed us that she was not going to do any more chemotherapy but was simply going to enjoy her final days. In the photo her eyes reflect that clarity and decisiveness. The face of my daughter, then five, was filled with her own decisive personality—a fierce connection to her grandmother and her own life force shone through her as well. As my mother studied this picture, she looked back and forth from one face to the other, murmuring over and over, “Coming and going. Coming and going.” After a while, she asked herself, “Who’s coming and who’s going?”

We are all coming and going, all the time. Life is a rhythm of transitions held by these two major journeys into infinity, birth and death. If you are like me, though, you miss a great deal of your life telling yourself that real life will begin after a major transition looming ahead—after you graduate from school, find a new job, get rid of a horrible roommate, meet with your parole officer, get married, get divorced—right after that, then life will begin!
That’s how we miss our lives, miss what we are given each morning as a gift, fail to notice the small moments of grace in our coming and going every day. Rumi, a Sufi poet, wrote:

The life gift is given
And then taken away.
It is not for us to know why, or how.
Grace comes with the creation word, Be.
That gate opens without hesitating.
Between the push of Buh
And the smooth launch of ee,
There is an infinite moment
When everything happens.
Grace comes with the creation word, Be.
That gate opens without  hesitating.


When we said goodbye to our son at Logan Airport, his sisters cried and his mother hugged him hard, and I did too, and he looked embarrassed. Then they announced his flight, and he walked down the long corridor to the plane. Every now and then he’d turn around to wave, and yes, we were still there, and then he turned the corner and was gone.

It doesn’t matter whether you leave by train or plane or car or on your own two feet, but there is always a corner that you must turn and then you’re gone.

We walked to the car parked on the top level of the garage, and, I imagine, we looked as if there’d been a death. In a sense, there had been, for every parting is a death, and so is every goodbye. We were giving up the someone we had heard bellowing in the shower at 5:00 in the morning, who ate the brownies his sister had baked for her friends, who left his bicycle in the front hall, who made quiet funny jokes and wonderfully crazy drawings, and who left emptiness and silence where he used to be.

So, yes, you must die to the one he was and die to the one you were to him, so that he and you can each go on and become the one God created you to be, not the one you’ve grown comfortable with. This dying-to-each-other is as much a part of life as breathing and sleeping, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.

So many little deaths we die before we die the big one. We die these deaths so we may live, so we may move with that inexorable force called life. The favorite mug smashed on the stone floor, the lost book, the job gone, the song sung, the face now seen only in that unrealistic photo—all these are part of the dying-to-live.

In the 1940s Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his prison cell in Berlin and wrote a letter to his parents. It was the first Christmas he had spent away from home and he wrote,

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try and find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that our communion with each other may be kept alive even at the cost of pain.

That’s another way of making my point. Perhaps it is simply dying to the one thing or one person whom we love, so that, although we may not know it at the time, another thing, another person, another love, may happen—not take its place.

Three months after our son left, we returned to the airport to welcome him back. We knew that a young man would step off the plane at Logan Airport, and he would look very much like the one we said goodbye to. But he wouldn’t be. He would be different, and we would be different too. That difference is good, and it would happen because we were willing to say goodbye, to die a bit so that we could grow a bit and meet each other as the people we became.

The church has known this for a long time and reminds us in the liturgies and scriptures. But every now and then we must rediscover it for ourselves. I guess Logan Airport is as good a place for that as any.

from Never Far From Home: Stories from the Radio Pulpit by Carl Scovel, minister emeritus, King’s Chapel, Boston, Massachusetts.

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