A Good Afterlife

October 31, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

It is that wonderfully witchy time of year. Magic abounds. I walked outside this morning to find a zebra on the front lawn -- just my horse neighbor, Zephyr, painted with stripes, but it was still magical. Ancient Celtic tradition spoke of All Hallow's Eve as a time when the veil between the worlds was especially thin, and the dead could communicate with the living. I wonder if we really want to know what they have to say. Who knows?

But I have been a minister for long enough now to know that the dead do speak, they appear, they communicate. I have learned this not just from my own intuitions of the spirits but from you -- from dozens of rational, science-minded, educated and intellectual types here on the South Shore, and in Pennsylvania where I served a similarly rational and intellectually-oriented congregation and in Maryland where I also ministered among reasonable persons who are not otherwise prone to mystical notions. I became a clergy person in part so that people would share these stories with me. To be a religious person, I think, means to be open to hearing them. It means to be curious, to retain that sense of "who knows?" It means to respect the possibilities.

We had Michael Markowicz in here a year or two ago with some recording equipment to monitor the spirit voices in this meetinghouse. Michael studies EVP, electronic voice phenomenon, which uses ordinary recording devices to capture sounds that EVP practitioners believe are coming from the dead, or from aliens, or from another dimension. Ask Joanne Howard or Carrie Brandon about that night. I didn't stick around. Nor did I take up Michael's offer to listen to the tapes afterward. He thinks he caught a lot of activity. I live in a parsonage that was built in 1765 and which has housed our ministers and their families since 1875. I know about activity and I have plenty of it at home.

So, who knows? But I will make this observation: as much as it may shake up the living to receive a message from the dead, I have never heard of a message coming through that wasn't full of comfort and love, or maybe just simple curiosity as in, "I am generating this energy, can you feel it? Am I making an impression?" I offer no explanations whatsoever to these phenomena, I just respect their authenticity for the people who experience them, I marvel at both the sameness and the variety of the ways that spirits apparently likes to get in touch with people, I like to think about how and why these phenomena occur, but I ultimately come to the conclusion that what happens after death is beyond human comprehension because it was designed to be so. If I have one particular religious belief about the Afterlife I think I would state it in this way: Whatever grand and brilliant force or forces made human consciousness and contemplation of our own mortality possible, that same force arranged a limit to our consciousness so that we would never be able to know with any certainty what happens beyond this lifetime. Human beings, in a rare display of limited imagination, have mostly decided in favor of two options: either our afterlife consists of a celestial realm of peace and reconciliation and joy called Heaven ... or we exist in a second location of misery and suffering known as Hell. Humans, in a not-at-all rare display of violence and domination, have --in almost all cultures and at all times -- attempted to terrify and control those they don't like and whom they want to dominate with the threat of Hell. You should know that our own Universalist heritage not only does not believe in Hell, but vehemently rejects such a concept as a vicious invention of mortals who have failed to understand that the divine character is one of benevolence and compassion. Meanwhile, artists as varied as Hieronymous Bosch and Clint Eastwood depict the afterlife in ways that continue to generate wonder and conversation into our own times. And we don't know.

Last weekend Professor Michael Hartwig gave a Fogg lecture on "A Good Death." He talked about end-of-life issues, and some of the ethical concerns in health care and hospice and medicine. His basic point was something we have emphasized a lot here in church: that death is not a failure, it is not always a tragedy but a normal phase of life, it is not a subject that should frighten us out of talking about it. Death's mysteries are awesome, yes, but given that death is an inevitability for us all, it is something we should be thinking about and planning for while we are of sound mind to do so, getting information about our options and leaving clear instructions for our loved ones about medical directives, the distribution of our estate, our wishes for our bodies, and plans for our memorial service.

That's a check-list, so let's review it again:

Part of preparing to be a good ancestor spirit is to be your own advocate and planner before the time comes and to plan for

Medical directives, including assigning a health care proxy and making your wishes known by using a tool such as the on-line resource "Five Wishes;"

Arrangements for your body, which you can make with a funeral director ahead of time;

Estate planning so that your children or nieces and nephews don't wind up not speaking to each other about their inheritance or about that beloved dining room table;

Your memorial service so that your minister can choose your hymns and readings in full confidence that their theology and sentiment speaks to you in a deep way; and there's a final thing, that we have never discussed before...

What would you like your loved ones to do for you spiritually both before and after your death?

If you were terminally ill, or in extremis, what kinds of support or aid, or things might you want? Maybe there is a favorite item you might want with you, or a kind of music you might want around you, or certain fragrances you either love or want nowhere near. Is there someone you especially hope to see before you die? Especially hope to avoid? Be honest: this is no time to mess around. We never know how much control we have over our environment when our health fails suddenly, but there's nothing vain or superficial about leaving some instructions about what we can assume our preferences and needs might be at the end of life.

To know, for instance, that you absolutely want to die at home helps your family or close friends make the best decisions with you or for you if you cannot speak for yourself. Maybe you would like photographs of someone dear to you around you if you are bedridden. Tell someone. Even if they have no idea who that person is, you are not obligated to explain. There may be a quilt that has tender associations for you tucked on the bottom shelf of your linen closet: let someone know it is there, and let them know that you would like it tucked around you at the end of your life if at all possible. If you would like to leave this lifetime to the strains of Chopin piano music, as I think I would, there is no reason to think that a petty request. If you are soothed by the sound of the ocean, or of the rainforest, or Sousa marches, that can be arranged: it's not difficult to get recordings and to bring them to wherever you are.

At this point in my life I think I would like to be buried in a pine box and dressed in white cotton pajamas, covered with a white quilt and tucked in with rosemary and lavender branches. I've left instructions with my funeral plans. If I change my mind I'll just change my instructions. There is nothing morbid or unnatural in having thought about these things: what is unnatural is how we have come to regard death as somehow an impolite topic of conversation.

Now, what about your needs as an ancestor spirit? After you're gone, is there something you might need or desire from the living? Say it now! Not just the disposition of your worldly goods, and not just for those who love you to remember you, and to heed the advice and counsel and love you've been dispensing all along, but spiritually. What can the living do for you in spirit when you've passed through the veil?

Perhaps, like the Tibetan Buddhists do, you would like your friends to say prayers for the repose of your soul for 40 days after you die. There can never be harm in prayer. Or maybe you would like your spouse to wear mourning black for a year, or maybe you would like to tell him or her absolutely not to wear black, and to get out and dance. Tell them. They're not obligated to obey you, but it can help to know how you felt about the matter.

Maybe you feel that your spirit has always been connected to the sea, or to the sky. Why not tell your grandchildren that no matter whether you are alive or passed on, they can always feel close to you at the beach or gazing at the night sky, or flying a kite? You can cultivate this spiritual connection now and it will be a gift to them when you're gone from their physical lives.

Would you like it if your descendants read some favorite poems aloud every year on your birthday? Or maybe you would love it if your friends got together every Mother's Day as you did in your lifetime and served lunch at a shelter for homeless women. Tell them you'll be there with them. You don't know that you won't be. Say what you would like. Write it down. Confide it to a close friend, or to your minister, to someone who won't say, "That's silly, you shouldn't be thinking about such things. You're not going to die for a very long time!"

No, it's not silly. And as we know, part of what makes life so precious and why we cling to it so tenaciously is that the years do fly by with amazing speed. St. Benedict always said, "Keep your death daily before you." At this season of All Soul's, when we remember the saints (and the sinners, who by our love for them, become our beloved saints) and trust that they are all in the arms of a great peace that we shall someday know. As the wheel of the year turns we resist our usual linear notions of time and glimpse the cyclical nature of it all. None of us knows how much time we have here, but we know that we have all the time in the world to remain connected by love, remembrance and eternity.