Those Who Came Before

November 3, 2013
Rev. Dr. Leonard DeRoche

Thursday was Halloween, the eve of All Soul's Day, and the Latin American tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead. Each of these rich traditions celebrates this date slightly differently. Halloween is one of the oldest traditions, going back thousands of years to pre-Roman Europe. One of those harvest festivals was known as Pomona Day, after the Roman goddess of orchards of fruits and gardens. Pomona Day was celebrated around the 1st of November. The Romans brought this holiday to Britain when they conquered the southern portion of the isle. They discovered that the Druids already celebrated this season on about the October 31st. Like the Romans, the Celts worshipped nature on a lunar calendar. The dominant Celtic god was the sun god. It was this force who was their favorite. The Sun as a force commanded their work and their sleep periods, and the force that nurtured the earth for beauty and crops.

November 1st started the three-day festival called Samhain (pronounced "sow-en"). This was the Celtic New Year. It marked the end of the "season of the sun" and the beginning of "the season of darkness and cold". After the crops were all harvested and stored for the long winter, the cooking fires in the homes would be extinguished. The Celtic priests, known as Druids, would assemble on the hilltop in the dark sacred oak forest and among the realm of the green man. Here the Druid priests would light new fires and offer sacrifices of the harvest, both crops and animals. They danced around the fires for the night and would mark the season of the sun passing and the season of darkness beginning. To celebrate these spirits, many of the Celts would dress in costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals and move around the fire. It marked mid-season where the divine lovers of the tradition prepare for the long winter sleep, much as we have had an extra hour of sleep last night. At the morning of the end of the festival the Druids would give an ember from their fires to each family who would then take them home to start new cooking fires. These fires would keep the homes warm and free from evil spirits. It is from this festival that we had the first Halloween.

As the Roman world later became Christian, they incorporated the pagan traditions into a church holiday in 835 CE to honor the dead saints and picked November 1st as All Saint's Day, or Hallowmas or Al Hallows. Later, November 2nd became All Souls Day. All Souls Day was the day to honor the dead and celebrated with bonfires, parades and customs depicting saints, angels and demons. About this time, the idea of Halloween as a night when all souls were released to wander the night came into recognition. The verbal evolution of the night of October 31 was from All Hallow Even, to All Hallow's Eve, to Hallowe and now Halloween. It currently combines the influences of harvest with apples and nuts and Samhain's black cats and evil spirits and the ghosts and skulls of All Saints and Souls Day.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they brought the Catholic holiday of All Souls and Saints with then and encountered the Aztec two-month celebrations that honored death, the harvest and the new year.The Aztecs had practiced honoring a goddess Lady of the Dead with harvest rituals of fires and incense. They costumed with animal skins, and displayed images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods, drink and flowers. These rituals were performed in burial locations. In Aztec and Mayan cultures the souls of the departed would continue to exist following death, resting quietly in the land of the dead, Mictlan. Each year they could return home to visit their loved ones. Death, they believed to be life's last reward for the hard life that their culture offered.

From these traditions came the current celebration of the Los Dias de Los Muertos, the day of the dead, as a time for remembering friends, family and ancestors. Most Day of the Dead activities take place in the home and in cemeteries. Paths of flower petals and burning incense lead spirits to the houses of their living relatives. Many families construct elaborate ofrendas or offerings, tables heaped with gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead. Special loaves of bread are baked for the holiday and are often included in offerings to the spirits. Other food offerings are selected with the spirit of a specific individual in mind, including dishes the deceased person enjoyed in life. Yet the Mexican views of death as transition of life still survives in the holiday. We hear this in this quote, "In our tradition, people die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning. The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight. The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us [1]". These three transitions have a certain resonance with my understanding of the world and are time that effect us all.

I have witnessed the first death many times when I worked in a hospital doing chaplaincy. At a bedside when someone dies, I have felt a certain uneasiness as if something had actually left. There is a movie out now called "21 Grams" that maintains that as the body dies it becomes 21 grams lighter. I don't know if that is so, but I have felt a unworldiness at times when I have been present at a death especially when everything else about it calm. There is another story that I observed that add to this unworldiness of the first death. The second death in Mexican eschatology or end theories occurs when the body either in a casket or as ashes returns to the ground. As we say, "earth to earth and ashes to ashes". I feel the finality of this event give the loved ones permission to begin the process of grieving again and progressing on with life. The third death in this Mexican concept only occurs when there is no one who remembers the person who died. This is true finality and the reason we celebrate all these celebrations like all souls and the day of the dead.

Maybe that is the importance of services like this and the Cushing Cup you see before you. Supreme Court Justice William Cushing, you will remember administered the oath of office to President George Washington for his second term in the Senate Chambers of Congressional Hall in Philadelphia. His wife, Hannah, was among the guests. William and Hannah Cushing were devoted members of this congregation. William died in 1810, but Hannah survived him by many years. Hannah was present at the dedication ceremony of this meetinghouse in 1833. Since commemorative gifts were traditional at the time, Hannah Cushing commissioned Boston silversmith E. Watson to create a set of 8 matching silver beakers engraved 'The Gift of Mrs. Hannah Cushing 1833.'  Hannah's silver cup has come to symbolize our connection to all of our beloved ancestor spirits. At the close of the service come forward and let your hands warm the cup.

That is what all memorial services are- not allowing a person to die that last death. I remember once in 1998 being summoned to the ICU to the comatose figure of Edward Auge'. He was 52. We were the same generation. Present were his daughter from the University of Wisconsin and an ex-wife. He contracted leukemia in 1972, to which he finally succumbed 26 years later. Born in Argentina of French and Irish parents, he gave himself to life. His memorial service was held in a small chapel at the University of Chicago that looked medieval. People are not dead until they are not remembered. To these three deaths I would a fourth. This is Buddhist in nature and concerns the karma we create, whether positive or negative, that will go on and affect the world even when our names are no longer remembered.

Each year as we approach All Souls Day, the day of the dead (Dia de los Muertos) and Halloween, my thoughts go to graveyards. I like graveyards, especially Victorian cemeteries. I spend quiet time walking in them. When I was in Bethlehem, PA, I lived across street from Union Cemetery on Church Street. In Kingston, I lived across the street from their cemetery. I walked both places regularly. The epitaph found on the stones can be a window into both the era and the individuals who erected the stones.

My family plot is in a Moravian cemetery in New York. One of the first epitaphs that really attracted my attention was on my grandmother's stone: "She was Long Suffering." She was a German woman who lived to 93, but was not sick a day in her life that I remember. The long suffering referred to her marriage to my grandfather who was one of the most unpleasant of people especially to his wife. Once in the cemetery in Kingston, I found a strangely soothing epitaph. While the name of the deceased and her dates had been obliterated by wind and rain, there was a classic nineteenth century carving of a tree with roots and branches and among them the words, "she attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things." This seemed to me a little meager, maybe subtle on the part of her survivors, but I wrote it down and have thought about it since, and now I can't imagine a more proud and satisfying legacy. It certainly beats the alternative. "She attended poorly to a few unworthy things." But really, "She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things."

Every day I risk my life driving on these winding narrow roads and stand in danger of being struck by lightning each time I walk my dogs in a rain storm. If that occurred what would an obituary in the local paper say, what would be written in stone of my life? How do you want your stone to read? 
"He got all the dishes washed and dried before playing with his children in the evening." 
"She balanced her checkbook with meticulous precision and never missed a day of work- missed a lot of sunsets, missed a lot of love, missed a lot of risk, missed a lot-but her money was in order." 
"She answered all her calls, all her e-mail, all her voice-mail, but along the way she forgot to answer the call to service and compassion, and forgiveness, first and foremost of herself."
"He gave and forgave sparingly, without radical intension, without passion or conviction."
"She could not or would not, hear the calling of her heart."
"He attended Rotary meetings with regularity."

What will go down in stone, what few worthy things to which you attended well and faithfully?  This morning let us hold those we have lost in our own memories as the gong chimes and say together, "Those who are remembered, live."

We remember Charlie Morgan.
We remember Dick Sulc.
We remember Harry Heineman.
We remember Eleanor Norris.
We remember Mary Knapp.

We remember in an ever-evolving and never-ending world amen.  

 

[1] Latino.com by Victor Landa