The congregation recently gathered to honor the life of a dear friend who was witty and kind and deeply spiritual and a brilliant amateur philosopher. These are some excerpts from what I shared at the memorial service:
At that last breath, who knows what latent memories come rushing forward, lingering electrical impulses firing in long-lost corners of the brain? Maybe death is really a great awakening of memory, a return to something more elemental, an eternal moment of re-membering. …
You may not remember the universe, but the universe will remember you.
Every breath moving air,
Every smile and furrowed brow driving a billion atomic collisions,
Every brainwave emoting God-knows-what into the eternal cosmological abyss.
The contemporary poet Christian Wiman was diagnosed with incurable cancer some years ago and wrote about the transformation of faith:
Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. … I don’t mean simply that faith changes (though there is that). I mean that just as any sense of divinity that we have comes from the natural order of things—is in some ultimate sense within the natural order of things—so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product.
Faith is a kind of participation in God’s order of things. In that sense, there may be no more faithful act than to receive death when the time comes. To accept that a life lived truly and wholeheartedly in love will finally come to rest so that other lives may be propelled forward by that same love.
In any true love…there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. … Love, which awakens our souls and to which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is if it is only us. To manage this highest form of loving does not mean that we will be showered with earthly delights or somehow be spared awful human suffering. But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence.
This is not, of course, to glorify death or to dismiss the tragedy of loneliness we feel when someone is lost. It only to say that death makes us part of something bigger in a way that life, absent death, could not.
Aldo Leopold observed the cycle of life taking place in a forest ecosystem: one decade would be favorable to the oaks and they would spread their seeds. The next decade would see an increase in rabbits thriving on the young oaks by eating them, leaving less food for a dwindling rabbit population in the decade after that. And so it goes on forever: an age of rabbits followed by an age of the oaks, each enabling the other’s existence in its death and its life. By this ebb and flow, Leopold wrote, the forest achieves a “collective immortality.”
The poet Ian M. Fraser wrote a few words about this tension:
When my time comes
please, please, please
no penguin parades,
no solemn posturing:
but folk in jeans,
children playing, babies crying
and dancing in the streets.
Death places us squarely on this earth. Death makes us more human. What else should we do but wear jeans and play and cry and dance? (It makes me laugh to think that somewhere someone will dance in the streets when I die).
Maybe death is really a great awakening of memory,
a return to something more elemental,
an eternal moment of re-membering…