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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

As we know from our splendid dance last night, today is Halloween, followed tomorrow by Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. I have long been intrigued with the way some cultures, more readily than our own, embody the idea that “death ends a life, not a relationship.” Dia de los Muertos commemorates a “reunion of the dead and the living.” As the Senegalese writer Birago Diop put it:

Those who have died
Have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth

The New York Times recently reported from Ambohimirary, Madagascar :
With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead.
… Every society has its own customs regarding the deceased, an interplay between those who are and those who were.… Here in the central highlands of Madagascar, [a]ncestors are periodically taken from their tombs… The ritual is called a famadihana (pronounced fa-ma-dee-an)…Many [here] believe the boundary between life and death is not altogether impermeable, that the spirits of their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth. To them, the famadihana is a time to convey the latest family news to the deceased and ask them for blessings and sagely guidance.

This service welcomes the ancestors back. Inviting the spirit of those we love who have died to commune with us once again.

I suspect most if not all of us have felt the presence of loved ones who have died: in a turn of phrase that comes out of our own mouths. In a gesture, a thought even, a way of approaching the world. We carry those who have died in our memory, but also in our actions, our posture, our patterns of speech, in a laugh or even what it is we laugh at. Some we may carry as a bruise, a tenderness unhealed or simply left to be.

As the Birago Diop poem suggests, I seek my father in the rustling leaves, my brother in the seagull who alights for a moment by himself. This summer I had occasion to revisit what I understand about death: how it cleaves the living. How the verb cleave means both to separate and to join. And that is what death appears to do: to simultaneously separate one from another, the living from the dead, and yet, it fastens the two together in irrevocable ways.

In a recent email exchange, Fred Hutchings articulated one of those ways. He wrote of people who commit evil deeds, “they must be held accountable by we the living. We must find them and hold them responsible. This is a duty. Indeed it is one of our relationships with the departed.”

If I read Fred correctly, we have a responsibility to uphold justice, to pursue right relations and death dos not terminate that duty; if anything, it intensifies it, so this morning as we consider together the relationships we have with those who have died, I share a story from the Jewish mystical tradition, a story of creation that goes something like this: When the divine energy needs to make room for the world it has to recede. A rabbi explained it to me this way: visualize an inflated balloon deflating. Then somehow it bursts into infinite pieces. Sparks of divine light fall everywhere. The task of creation for humans is to recognize the divine light in each being, to gather it up, to reassemble its constituent parts. Perhaps each of us, not just the collective divine energy eventually reassembles as a complete being.

I imagine Eeyore with his busted balloon gathering the pieces into a honey pot. If the purpose of life is to let ourselves be re-assembled, or reunited with our own divine fragments as we lift up and return the divine fragments of others, then perhaps what happens in death is that once again, the divine light within us scatters. It doesn’t dissipate so much as disperse. Instead of residing in the body we once had, our light travels with any and every being we touched. The ones who love us. The ones who learn something about themselves by encountering us, even disliking us. The ones we inspire, mentor, raise. The ones we challenge in ways that evoke their growth, cultivate their flexibility, or patience or understanding. The ones we extended our compassion to, and the ones who gained the capacity to be compassionate by knowing us.

Consider all the beings, not just people, who have touched, shaped, even defined your life, and consider as well your effect on others. Usually we don’t have an accurate idea the scope or depth of our influence. Perhaps that’s why at calling hours and memorial services we recount the ways the deceased affected our lives. Imagine if you will, all the fragments of our essential being: whether it be our sense of humor or our tenacity, our wisdom or our charm, our foibles, our resilience, our suffering, our joy, even our need—each carried in vessel of someone else. It is not just a matter of being recalled. It’s a matter of becoming part of what imprints another. We tread across sand and the grains shift all the way out to the ocean floor.

Perhaps in death our light disperses like shafts of light entering a prism refracting into multiple rainbows. Light, light everywhere. Which leads me to believe the light we leave reflects the light we find, the light in others we lift up during our lives, however brief or long they may be.

Mary Oliver writes, “when death comes I don’t want to end up having visited this world.” Life calls us to be its denizens, not tourists. It calls us to fully engage knowing unlike barnacles, we can’t fully attach, because like Eeyore’s balloon and the cosmos itself, we expand and contract and expand again.

We exist in who and what we love, in the tangible embodiments of our essence: that which gives shape to who we are.

A talented young poet, Emma Clarkson, captures it this way:

I was eight when I first learned death
and how it meant Galileo thermometers, and
adjustable rate mortgages, and asparagus.

As we sat in the church, my mind wandered from
the John 14:something to what I remembered, and it was
a Galileo thermometer

sitting on a side table, in the Cape May house;
the globes, all with their ounce of colorful fluid, bobbing
up and down, their metal tags clinking, 76 degrees, 80 falling;

and then Dad talked, and it was called a eulogy, but that
was a new word to me.
He talked about lots of things, but I remember

he said that his then father-in-law-to-be had
given them money advice, and been scandalized, when they got an
adjustable rate mortgage.
I didn’t know what that meant, but I
meant to google it later.
I forgot.

And then we drove to the graveyard where there was
a family plot; lots of Brooks’ who I hadn’t known.

We gathered round the hole, black clad
and the box was lowered, a small thing, with
ashes in it.

And people laid flowers across it. Roses, and something yellow.
And then asparagus. Because he had loved asparagus, and
mom had grown up with an asparagus patch.

People laughed and cried at the same time; then
Chris pulled a reading from his jacket, and
read it.

It was a ship, sailing away from us, going somewhere, and
it ended with the line,
and that is dying.

It was lovely, but it wasn’t right. Because dying wasn’t
the ship that sailed away. And
it wasn’t the box that they lowered into the ground.

And it wasn’t the never-see-him-again, because
that hadn’t even started to happen yet. At that
moment, then,

dying was asparagus.
And Galileo thermometers.
And adjustable rate mortgages.

Few of us know when we will die, but if Emma is right, dying holds us as we have lived. The light of our life may scatter, mirroring the birth of the world.

Mary Oliver writes in an essay called “Bird” of her encounter with an injured black-backed gull she finds on the beach: “it made no protest when I picked it up, the eyes were half-shut, the body so starved it seemed to hold nothing but air.” Over the next few weeks though, the gull gains strength, enough so to become playful. In the end though, despite the poet and her partner’s loving ministrations, the gull dies. Oliver notes, “He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact, this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it not filled with darkness but with light.”

This from the poet who writes, “If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it? Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only the light that can shine out of a life.” To live well implies connection, feeling akin to beings whose transience is assured. Our awareness of the inevitability of transition heightens the intensity of connection. We owe the shape of our lives to fondness with its inherent peril. Fondness for other beings, for activities and sensations, a fondness for service, for feeling purposeful. Some of our fondnesses may wane; and the leavetaking will be ours. And sometimes we will be left to reckon with the absence of the very creature, sensation or interaction of which we have become fond.
Each of us, time and time again, enters that perilous place. It is the place that gives our lives and our death dimension. May we be graced with “the other part of knowing” that allows us to lift the jar of emptiness, of absence, of missing, and open the lid to find not darkness but light. The scattered and luminous light that can shine out of a life even when it belongs to the sky.

This morning you will notice that some of the lower panes of our windows have cellophane on them and bits of colored tissue paper nearby. This is to allow you to commemorate the light of someone you carry. It’s a way of reuniting their light in death with this day in our lives. If you care to move to a window now or during the postlude to affix a bit of color I invite you to do so.

Tomorrow, across Mexico, millions will welcome the spirits of those who have never really left, those whose breath now stirs in “rustling leaves and groaning woods,” the ones whose spirits dwell in seagulls or flowers, in the vistas that arrest our own breathing with the splendor of the view. As our neighbors to the south celebrate, may the sounds of their laughter and the aroma of their freshly baked skull-shaped breads remind us that death cleaves without end; on the other side of separation is reunion: and it is ours.

Closing words: As Kahlil Gibran writes, “Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering.” May you go fully and fondly into this good day.