Honoring Death
A Homily

October 29, 2006
Walter LeFlore

Today, we celebrate All Soul' s Day, sometimes referred to as The Day of The Dead. This ancient celebration dates back to at least the seventh century, when monks decided to offer a mass on the day after Pentecost, for their deceased community members. As it turns out, it wasn' t an original idea; they stole it from the Pagans, who held a Festival of the Dead to celebrate their belief that the souls of the dead would return for a meal with their family. They would put out candles to guide the souls' return, and an extra plate would be set. The Kids would gather food from others in the village and offer it symbolically to the dead. The food that was left over…and there would always be food left over… would be given to the poor….this may be the earliest form of a food bank!

All Soul' s Day has since come to be a celebration of ALL friends and family who have died. Today, we honor those who have come before us, and it is right and proper that we should do so, for they are the ones who have helped to make us who and what we are. They are our direct connection with our past. But before we celebrate our loved ones from the past, let us look at HOW they BECAME a part of the past.

My father was 60 years old when I was born…I was the caboose my mother said. So I grew up with an elderly father. One of the phrases we often hear him say, was " nobody is put on this earth to live forever". In his own way, he was preparing me for his, and no doubt my own, death. I didn' t know it at the time, but I was very fortunate to grow up hearing about, and in a way, knowing about, death. I was taught from an early age not to fear death, but to accept it, as a natural, normal and necessary part of living.

We, in our culture, in this day and age are absolutely inept at dealing with death. Like sex and religion, we are taught not to talk about it. We hardly even know death' s name. We have a zillion and one euphemisms for the concept of death. "He has passed over", "she' s passed away", "we lost him", "he' s gone", "she' s living in heaven with God", "when she leaves us…", "he left us yesterday ", "we had to put the dog down", "it was put to sleep". You must know other polite phrases, I' m sure I' ve missed some. What comes to mind for you?

In our culture, we have a fear of death; an unspeakability of death. Fundamentally, I think the problem is a rational one-- that is to say, a problem of the rational mind. What is death to the rational mind? How does the rational mind deal with the concept of death? Is it simply The end? A lifeless form? Or maybe, a new life beginning. The truth is, we don' t really know much about death. All we can say for sure, is that the body stops working. We know even less about what happens after death…what ever we know we make it up, whatever we know is based on belief. Now those beliefs may be absolutely accurate, or they may be complete mythology…but they are beliefs. There is no way of knowing what happens, if anything, after death, at least not like we know that 2 plus 2 = 4.

Another reason I believe the problem has to do with the rational mind is because of the WAY we use our minds. We often use our minds as a way to control events or outcomes. If I know that it is going to rain, I can control the outcome by bringing an umbrella or a raincoat. If we have enough information, enough knowledge, enough understanding, we gain a sense of comfort that we can satisfactorily control the situation.

We can and often do exert some control over the aging process. We can take vitamins, exercise, eat well. We can use oils, creams, gels and potions and die our hair. And yes, when all else fails, we can visit our favorite plastic surgeon! But in the final analysis, it doesn' t matter how you look, or how good a person you are, it doesn' t matter where you live, it doesn' t matter how much money you have, it doesn' t even matter what age you are. When it comes to the big deal, we simply have no control over death.

But that should come as no surprise. In truth, we have very little control over very many things. We can' t control the weather, but we need not fear it. We can' t control what will happen later this afternoon, but we need not fear answering the phone, or going for a walk in the woods. ….We all learn to live with the unknown. Whether we like it or not, our lives include a relationship with the unknown.

We make meaning out of our lives. We believe we are happy, wise or cute. We believe we are unhappy, poor or old. We can love golf or think it' s a silly waste of time and money. We can love the garden, or think it' s just more work to do. We can love having the grandchildren around or think they are noisy little brats. The meaning is in us, not the kids. We make meaning for ourselves out of life. And we make meaning for ourselves out of death.

I' ve always loved hearing Louie Armstrong sing St. James Infirmary, in grand New

Orleans style. It seems such a wonderful way to think about death, to celebrate death. Let

me read (not sing) a few lines for you:

Oh when I die, please bury me
In my ten dollar Stetson hat
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So my friends' ll know I died standing pat.

Get six gamblers to carry to my coffin
Six chorus girls to sing me a song
Put a twenty piece jazz band on my tail gate
To raise hell as we go along.

I love the sentiment! What a wonderful way of being with death. We make meaning out of death and often it is a spiritual or religious meaning. We are the ones that must cope with death. We, the living, make meaning out of death for ourselves. In fact, making meaning of a loved one' s death is a necessary step in the bereavement process, which has a number of different stages, or phases. But perhaps the most important step is meaning making.

HOW do you think about death? WHAT do you think about death? It' s not at all unusual for a person' s life to be transformed in some way by the death of a loved one. Grief, which is an emotional process, often opens us up to a place in ourselves where the linear mind can' t go. We may discover beliefs that we didn' t know we had. Or we might develop beliefs that we' ve never had before. Our beliefs may include a sense of spirit or spirituality, or of a higher power, or of God. Or it may not. There are no rules, we each must create our own meaning.

Regardless of what specific meaning we each make of death, it is a process that we must go through. We each must come to some understanding of death. And ultimately, we must develop that understanding as individuals, each for ourselves. But the parodox is that death always occurs within a context, a context of relationship. Everyone is someone' s friend, lover, brother, sister, son or daughter; a member of a family or a community; a member of the interdependent web of all existence of which we too are a part.

Death is a communal event. It happens within the context of some community. And we, as a community, I believe, have an obligation to support each other through significant life events. We need to develop a concept of death as a normal, unavoidable life event. It happens to the best and brightest of us all. /// No one is put on this earth to live forever. How can we honor death, how can we honor those who have come before?

Let us hold them close to us, near and dear to our hearts. Let us remember them in death and remember them in life. And we will honor them.

In closing, I want to read a poem to you, by Wendell Berry, that I heard just the other day. It' s called Sabbaths:

Whatever happens,
Those who have learned
To love one another
Have made their way
To the lasting world
And will not leave,
Whatever happens.

And may it forever be, Amen.