Memento Mori

August 19, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I Corinthians 15:52, “ A trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised.”

You have come to a sermon which is going to be a little different. It is going to be explicitly, rather than implicitly, about death and dying. Many of you have asked for this, in different ways, and our GOT – Growing Old Together – group is already in the midst of amazing conversations on this subject. Interestingly, the topic was not requested by our older members but by an odd collection of younger ones. I say explicitly because I happen to believe most human conversation is about death, only implicitly and covertly. We are almost always talking about death. One is in the perennial lament about time, which sneaks its way into almost every conversation. I would but I can’t. I don’t have the time. If I had the time, I would. Here we are not just talking about our usual bridge game on Tuesdays or the fact that we have jobs. We usually mean it when we say, “I don’t have the time for that. I wish I did.” Or death will show up more humorously. I was playing tennis in a mixer on Tuesday afternoon at the lovely Chautauqua institution, where I was UCC chaplain for the week this past week. An even more elderly woman than I was in our group of four, as were two much younger women. The latter were the kind that had matching tennis outfits, down to the socks, no varicose veins and wicked serves. They had the kind of strength that I used to have. The woman in her seventies had a good game but you could see what it used to be in the way she moved, hit, sliced and served. At one point mid set she realized that her shirt was on backwards. She made a loud giggle and proceeded to take it off and put it back on, right side out. There were a group of teenagers on the other court who observed the entire operation, due to the volume in her giggle. My well dressed thirty something partner was appalled and said so, casting a bit of a pall on the rest of the game. Later, as we shook hands at the end of the match, and our elderly companion had left she got going. “How dare she do that in the middle of the game? Wasn’t it awful that those teenage boys had to see THAT?”

I couldn’t help myself, and in the spirit of memento mori, asked if she meant the woman’s sagging boobs. She said yes, wasn’t that just awful, as though it weren’t supposed to happen and if it did happen, teenage boys were not to be forewarned. What she really meant to say is that she didn’t like seeing what was going to happen to her perky body. I am not preaching here about etiquette, so much as noticing that death has a way of sneaking into summer afternoons on the tennis courts.

So permit me some explicitness. First there are three clichés that need to be cleared out of the way, in the same way that clutter is a problem for many people close to death. I’ll never forget my mother in law’s reaction to the discovery of a lump in her breast. We were summoned over, only to discover that she was furiously cleaning out her dresser drawers. I mean furiously. “Mary, what are you doing?” “I may have cancer, said she, and I would die if people saw the condition of these drawers, not to mention my closets or the basement.” People use the language, “I would die,” with a kind of disrespect. She might die if she had breast cancer, not if she didn’t DE clutter her rooms. Same thing happens with that other wonderful line, “This chocolate cake is to die for.” I don’t think so.

The clichés that act as clutter and become obstacles to our understanding of death are at least three. They resemble nothing so much as what George Orwell called “all the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls.” Number one, there are things worse than death. Yes, there are. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to die. In fact that statement all by itself can prevent us from a full tilt boogie terror about the other side, what happens after our last breath. By all means, get that last directive in order. Make sure someone knows what it is. But don’t avoid good old-fashioned terror in the face of death. One great way to prepare for death is to have nightmares about it. Or breath stopping moments in the subway when you know you are going to die. Or anxious moments when you look at an aging body and realize that sag is on its way to a theater playing near you too.

There are many things worse than death: The singer songwriter, Melody Gardot, had a terrible bicycle accident, which kept her in a hospital recovering for 18 months. She described her ordeal as “like climbing Mt. Everest every day.” She is back and has just put out a new album, appropriately titled, ‘The Absence.” Not every story of Everest has such a good ending but enough do that the climbers keep climbing.

It helps the climber to know that there are others who have climbed. I think of Edith Wharton’s character, Mrs. Manstey, who lived alone for eighteen years, watching the seasons change outside her Manhattan window. Then the landlady built an extension, barring the small view that she had enjoyed. She died the next day. What an accomplishment to have found a small view to enjoy on a daily basis. She climbed a little Everest every day.

A second cliché is straight from that great poet Wallace Stevens. In his poem, appropriately called Sunday Morning, “Death,” said he, is the “mother of Beauty.”

What he means by that limitation and inevitable loss infuse the living moments with their beauty. Fair enough. If life were endless, I would not care so much about learning how to grow sweet peas. Because life is not endless, I know I only have 100 or so –max – seasons in which to try. I call this great wisdom, what Stevens also call the “complacencies of the peignoir,” and “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” a cliché only when we use it as one. A cliché can be like cluttered drawers. It can get in the way of interrogation. Death is also the thief of beauty. Death is real, not poetic. Hospice chaplains love to tell us what their days are like. Instead of being dramatic encounters with universal truths, hospice chaplains are often sent out to find the kind of chewing gum that the dying person really likes. Or to play cards. Or to stare out windows. The last hours for most people are long, boring, incoherent, yielding to a kind of blurry unconsciousness, not a heightened consciousness. We can prepare for our death by facing the ennui of death as well as its beauty.

A third cliché says that it is not how we die but how we live that is important. Of course that is true. But how we die is also important. I can’t tell you how moved I am by two of our very senior members and how they are dying (in all likelihood) right now. Howard Moody, Minister Emeritus, got agitated enough yesterday in the hospital to inquire about Margaret Wright. That is how Howard lived and lives, not how he dies. He cares, active tense, about other people. Had he not developed that habit long ago, we would not see it now. Margaret Wright, whose situation is less extreme but still very difficult, also has learned, no matter what indignity she has suffered, to smile at you when you walk in the room. As a cabaret singer, she surely learned this affection of the eye early and practiced it well. The cliché could be restated to say, “It is not how we die but how we live that matters,” and become we both live and die as best we can, from our core beings. It is the opposition, the use of the word not in these clichés that bothers me. It’s not about death but about life is one of those endless tricks we play o experience, trying to form it, shape it, understand it, the way people manage the suicide of a loved one. If they can just come up with a reason, they can go on. The problem is there is no reason. Here I want to advocate that we not protect ourselves against death with clichés, like it’s not this but that, as if we knew, and instead enter a life that we realize will end in death. We don’t have to like that fact but it is a fact.
My favorite and final cliché is the one that you hear in bars after the third round often. “If you can face the fact of your death, you can live well. If you can’t face death you can’t embrace life.” Well, yes. And yes, but. I know a lot of people who are scared silly of dying who also live very well. “Facing death” sounds like something heroic and muscular and big and important. Most of us are not heroic nor spiritually muscular nor big nor important. We are also going to die, with out our homework done.

I think of the people who have died while we have been together:

Don Morlan: b 5/28/40; d.11/23/2006;
Mary Ellen Baldwin: d. 2/10/2008 at 74 years;
Richard Wendell Cordtz: b. 10/3/1952; d. 3/2/2008;
Marilyn Clement: b 6/30/35; d.8/3/2009;
Harry Koutoukas: b. 6/4/1937; d. 3/6/2010;
Lee Hancock: b 5/22/1951; d. 6/1/2010;
Susan Bowyer: b. 9/27/1935; d. 8/23/2010;
Shannon Fyan: b. July 1981; d. 5/8/2011;
Jay Hildreth: b. 1918; d. 1/29/2012;
Robert Bjesse: died November 7, 2011; memorial at Judson was June 2, 2012

Don Morlan who took a long time with cancer and suffered well. Mary Ellen Baldwin who jumped out of a window, leaving us all still wondering why. Robert Bijesse who died young of a heart attack, far from us, with his beloved partner, who had been harassed at Kennedy airport while being deported. Wendell, who had a terrible stroke and died a death that was just plain unfair. By the way I have it on good authority that the reason Mrs. Astor gave us the money to solidify these gorgeous stained glass windows was that Wendell happened to be there the day Peter Laarman was showing her around. He apparently was wearing a red blinking tie and Mrs. Astor thought that was charming enough to open her purse.

So forgive me if I have cleared the clutter in haste or in disrespect for the messy build up of half-baked ideas in most of us. The truth is we don’t have enough time and thus rely on quickies, metaphysically, to get us through.

If I can have a little more time, I’d like to put something in those drawers that now have some room in them for something new. One of the biggest battles in Protestantism right now is the battle over in ground burial and cremation. Check out Thomas Lynch’s writings in just about any blog or particularly that of Christian Century magazine. Lynch’s argument is that we have sanitized death by cremation becoming the predominant practice among our movement. He also says it leaves our beautiful burial grounds unused and therefore essentially messes with our architecture and history. I don’t have a horse in this race except to say that it is worth thinking about. Especially, I think burial and body viewings at death are worth thinking about in the light of the green funeral movement. It won’t take you long to realize that essentially that movement believes in a compositing method for human remains and for burial in places where the body can fertilize actual futures or at least trees. What is important in this debate is the debate. It moves people to the place where they remember there is a body to be disposed of, that the funeral director is not God, and that we get to make decisions about our final disposal. I mean, disposition. One of the worst moments for many people in a funeral, especially those who are cremated, is when the funeral director hands us an envelope full of death certificates. That often surprises people, because they remember the beloved is actually dead. I am a big fan of a bodily farewell, at the minimum, so we know the person is dead and so we can heighten our experience of loss in order to manage it.

I am also a big fan of the composting method of dying. I’ll use the example of the hydrangeas and how they grow. Mary Meyer told me I could grow new hydrangeas our of old ones by putting a brick on a stem. In the fall, the plants are straggly, leafy, blousy, with shoots coming out of them asymmetrically all over. Thus you put one of the longer stems down on the ground and plop two bricks on it, with something near violence. In the spring, I discovered two new plants growing on their own. The stems had become new plants. From a kind of death a kind of life. These natural motions are like the resurrection, or at least they are to me. The violence is an important part of the resurrection as well.

Think of those drawers, declutterred by clichés or at least filled with clichés that we have dusted off. In those drawers, a decision about our final disposal is important.

Also in those drawers should be a living will, the kind that alerts people what to do with us if we become what is so grotesquely called a vegetable. No one becomes a vegetable, not even people who lose arms or legs or speaking or hearing or memory.

Again, watch the cheap, quick language. And remember that end of life decisions are never easy. Never at all. Casey Holland, another of our members, is very sick with advanced AIDS right now. He may live and he may die. Note I did not say, “He may or may not make it,” which strikes me as sanitized language. He could give up and choose palliation, another one of those big hospice like words that means, non aggressive medical treatment, or pulling the plug or whatever other euphemisms we have for the grand choice to live out our days without any additional help. I have seen people choose the quiet death well and I have seen people choose the quiet death manipulatively and cruelly. I think of a brilliant man who bribed his sons to visit him every day, “otherwise I will take the pills I have been hiding.” People get weird close to death. And most people are weird all the time. I know a man who has late stage prostrate cancer who insists that he is alive because he has sex every day with his wife, who has late stage Alzheimer’s. She loves it, he loves it – and he swears he is alive because of it. I’d love to be able to proscribe but I have a feeling there are no causes and effects here, just the talismanic approach to life which most of us do every day.

I know eating an avocado a day alleviated another man who swears his brain cancer. You get the picture. If during life decisions are often interestingly made, you can imagine what we are like at the end.

A few words about funerals and I will stop. I strongly believe that we should plan our own funerals; just so our loved ones have one less drawer to clean out when we are gone. I have had mine planned so many times that I have had to change it frequently. One constant, I know we have to sing, “My Lord, what a Morning.” That gives me a way to tell you all that I have a deep and abiding faith in the resurrection, and that I only know that it is like morning. I had a member once in Riverhead who overdid this suggestion. She was the Executive Director of the Local 4-H and quite the mother superior. She not only planned her own funeral, she had a rehearsal for it and wore the exact out fit that she wanted to be “laid out in” for the rehearsal, replete with clipboard and stage directions. I thought that was a little overdone but most everybody had a really great time, including her husband and all her women friends. She had a ball at the reception. By the way, food is important afterwards. Most people hear about the death of someone and get out their casseroles.

I’ll also never forget my mentor Bill Coffin sweeping in at 3 p.m. in the afternoon at Battell Chapel, imaginging that he was doing the Sid Lovett Funeral. Sid was a big Yalie, whom everyone adored. Because Bill was lousy at planning things and great at executing them, he thought he was in charge, in his own way. He forgot about the bulletin and the musicians and the flowers and preparing a few words. It is important to take great care in who you invite to do what at a funeral – in the same way it is important to choose attendants and readers at a wedding. You don’t want your final song to be one of insensitivity. Unless, again, that is the way you have lived, in which case, you will probably also die that way.

Here ends a brief way of thinking about our ends. If clichés help, please use them. But dust them off as often as possible, put them back in your drawers, and use them. Note that in Australia, thrift stores are either called “reject” shops or “opportunity” shops. Choose your language well. Be careful if it is a repetition of something you hear over and over again.

For me, I finally prefer the way the scriptures talk about death and about preparing for it. Be ready to hear a trumpet. The trumpet shall sound. Be ready to be raised, even though you can’t imagine how. And the dead shall be raised. You will never be able to prepare for death, no matter how many moments of terror you have on this side. There will be no terror on the other side. How could there be more than what we now have in the great unknowing. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. We shall all be changed.

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