ALL SOULS REFLECTION: ON BEING EXISTENTIALLY CHALLENGED

OCTOBER 31, 1999
R.M. FEWKES


One of the funniest sketches in the old Monty Python episodes is the one about the dead parrot. Those of you who don’t remember or never saw it, a guy goes into a pet store to return a parrot he had recently bought. The parrot is lying vertically in his cage and not moving. He complains to the proprietor that the parrot has never shown any signs of life, that he in fact had been sold a dead parrot. The proprietor replies, "He’s not dead, he’s just sleeping." The man retorts that the parrot has indeed expired, he is a late parrot, he is no more, he’s stone cold dead. "No, he’s not," replies the proprietor, "he’s just a tired parrot and is resting." On and on the conversation goes until the man in utter frustration takes the parrot out of his cage and bangs him against the counter—whomp, whomp—to prove that the parrot is indeed, a dead parrot.

Coming to terms with the death of a parrot is one thing. Coming to terms with the death of a human being, especially the death of those we love and hold dear, is another. It is no laughing matter, yet I have seen many people laugh at the recollection of humorous episodes in the life of their late loved ones at memorial services or in shared conversations. Laughter and tears are closely related to one another. We sometimes say, "I laughed until I cried." Why is it we laugh the loudest at those things that in fact cause us the greatest pain? Because if we didn’t, we’d probably scream. Laughter and tears help us to bear the pain of grief and loss and to go on living.

You’ve all heard the expression, "When you're dead, you're dead." Which is another way of saying that the personality and consciousness of the individual dies with the death of the body and is no more. When you’re dead, you're dead. That's it. You're finished. Gone-zo. It's over. Not to be continued. Bottom-line zero, void, nada, nada, nothing. Being is swallowed up in nonbeing. When you're dead, you're dead. The proprietor of the pet shop might reply, "No, they’re not. They’re just existentially challenged." The truth of the matter is, we the survivors of those who have died, are the ones who are existentially challenged. We are challenged to go on living with courage and hope, knowing that we all bear the stamp of human mortality, that living well is the best revenge and the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to our loved ones who have died.

When you’re dead, you’re dead. But is it true? The plain fact is we really don't know. Evidence can be suggested yea and nay and not be ultimately convincing one way or the other. It remains in the realm of ultimate mystery. We just don't know what happens to individual human consciousness when it passes through the portal of death. Clues from near-death, out-of-body, past lives, mediumistic or mystical experiences offer bases for a leap of faith for some, but not for others who wonder how to distinguish fantasy and wish fulfillment from truth and reality.

So, what are we left with? We are left with the mystery of being of the individual and of life itself, a mystery that cannot be finally known or rationalized, but only entered into and experienced, felt and celebrated, in thought and reflection, word and wonder, rite and ceremony. The celebration of All Souls is an attempt to do just that.

We don’t know what happens to the dead after they have died, in what form of being or nonbeing they may reside. We do know they continue to live in the thoughts and memories of those who come after, some vivid and nearly palpable in their remembered presence, others fading and nearly forgotten by the living. But remembered or forgotten they continue to exert an immortality of influence in the biological chain of being that links all life and all generations, and in the establishment of ways and customs, art and language, innovations and inventions that leave their mark upon our lives though we may know not from whence or whom they come.

As it says in this morning’s liturgy, "the dead are not dead: they are in the water that runs, they are in the grasses that weep, they are in the breast of the women, they are in the child who is wailing, they are in the firebrand that flames, they are in the house, they are in the crowd. Phantoms pass with echoing footsteps. The dead are not dead." And so it is.

On All Souls we remember our beloved dead not as ghosts who haunt, though haunt our imaginations they may do, but as members of the Beloved Community whose precious life is Life of our life, Soul of our soul, Heart of our hearts, lingering thought of our minds. We count up the treasures they have left--gifts of life, and love and wisdom--and consecrate them to our continued use and progress, that we in our turn may add them "to the ever-growing treasures of the common life."

And so on All Souls, which follows All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we can declare, "When you’re dead, you're not really dead." The dead continue to live in the hearts and minds of the people in whose lives they still live, in whose thoughts they are present, in whose memories they are not forgotten. We are the ones who are existentially challenged to make their lives and our lives a testimony to the enduring power of love and grace and to the courage to be that is passed from one generation to another. As it was written long ago, "Their bodies are buried in peace, but their names liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise."