Rev. Ellen Jennings
To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time to every purpose under heaven.
Reassuring, right? And this morning’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans proclaims: “If we live, we live to the Lord. And if we die, we die to the Lord.” Which is also reassuring…
But, still we grieve. We suffer. For we all experience loss. In fact, this may be the one thing besides birth that binds every human being on the planet: we are bound by our common humanity, our mortality; for “ashes to ashes” every single one of us will return to the earth.
And yet, our responses to this reality vary. Some rail against the dying of the light, others accept it with stoicism, still others are stricken, almost overcome, by their grief. And each of these responses is normal, “okay” (even if awful to experience), and unique to our individuality and what we’ve experienced in our lives.
Listen to the words of W.H. Auden in his poem, “Funeral Blues.”
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
This mourner is, clearly, grief-stricken. From his perspective, life has stopped and may never truly start again. And who are we to say he’s wrong? For life never is the same after a loved one has died. It is never truly the same.
And then there is anger. Why?! Why us? Why our loved one? There’s neither rhyme nor reason to death, so why should it come to our life? Edna St. Vincent Millay rails in “Dirge Without Music:”
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Millay is clearly angry. She knows that death happens, even knows it has to happen. But she is not resigned. She does not approve. It is not okay!
No, it is not okay. Even if we believe quite passionately that our loved ones are at peace, that they are embraced by God, that they are okay, we may not be. For death is hard. It is inevitable. It is what happens—to each one of us and to everyone we love. But that doesn’t mean it’s “okay.” And we are here today, as a community, both to acknowledge this and to hold one another as we grieve its reality.
In the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods:”
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
To let it go. To let it go and to let the peace which passes all understanding flow into our hearts and minds and souls and begin to salve the deep grief which we, as humans, carry— to heal the pain that we express, as Paul writes, “in sighs too deep for words.”
So this morning, as a community, we are going to come together and remember all those we have loved and lost; we are going to honor our grief, and we are going to hold one another with love and prayer as we do. Here in front of the sanctuary there are two tables of remembrance, with memory candles on each one. I invite you to come forward, light a candle and return to your seat, holding your memories with gentle care.
To begin this ritual, I ask those who have lost a loved one within the past year to rise and stand as you are able. In Judaism, fresh grief is honored in this way. [People stand]
This Jewish prayer of mourning is for us all:
“The Lord gives; the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Early or late, all must answer the summons to return to the Reservoir of Being. For we loose our hold on life when our time has come, as the leaf falls from the bough when its day is done. The deeds of the righteous enrich the world, as the fallen leaf enriches the soil beneath. The dust returns to the earth, the spirit lives on with God.
Like the stars by day, our beloved dead are not seen by mortal eyes. Yet they shine on for ever; there is eternal peace.
Let us be thankful for the companionship that continues in a love stronger than death. Sanctifying the name of God, we do honor to their memory.
And now, I invite those who are standing to come forward, light a candle and share a few brief words in memory if you’d like to do so. [People come forward]
I now invite all who have lost a loved one, at any time in the past, to come light a candle. Of course, your candle may be lit in memory of more than one person. And, as you do, we’ll sing together the refrain of the old hymn printed in your order of service, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting in the sky, in the sky?
~Ada Ruth Habershon
[People come forward]
Let us close in prayer:
Loving God who heals all hearts. We know that death is a part of life and we pray that you will comfort us in the experience of this reality. May we understand that the circle is never truly broken, and that you, O God, connect us with a Love that, as Paul writes, is greater than “death or life or angels or rulers or things present or things to come.” When we walk through the darkest valley, may we feel your presence and embrace. And, may you help us always be present to one another as you are present to us and love one another as we are loved by you. Amen.