What follows are the beginnings of ruminations I’m sure will continue for a good, long time to come. Life, death, connectedness….I’m interested in what folks think — I preached this at the Sugarloaf Congregation of UU’s in Germantown, MD on 2 October 2011.
Part of the Big Picture
Last October, I stood near the bank of Laurel Run, the Chespeake Watershed stream that falls down Pine Grove Mountain to Slab Cabin Creek. I was in the mountains outside of State College, PA. My brother carried the box, heavier than you’d think with my father’s ashes. Inside, a clear plastic bag held all that we could see remaining of his body. My mother had brought cups we could use to scatter the ashes in the woods. I wanted to use my hands. I wanted to feel the smooth, sandy feeling on my skin. When I plunged my hand into the box, my mother looked away.
I carefully placed several handfuls beneath the laurel and the rhododendron growing near Laurel Run’s banks. And then I tossed some on top of some leaf litter. I looked and there were ashes under my fingernails. I tossed again. The wind came up just for a moment, and I was surrounded by an eddy of my father’s ashes, getting into my clothes, my hair, swirling around. I gasped and breathed in enough that I coughed.
It took me just a moment to consider how I should feel or react. Should I be alarmed or disgusted or freaked out. Or maybe have some profound, memento mori experience of remembering soberly that I, too, will die and dissipate into ashes and dust and pass into memory and nothingness. In the end, though, I threw my head back in the breeze and laughed. Just for joy.
My father’s ashes, my father’s body, some significant part of my father’s being, transformed by the energy of fire, was in me, around me, a part of me.
Today, I invite us to ponder the mystery of connectedness through the lens of death. Obviously, I’m considering these issues because of the personal anniversary I mentioned, but also, at the end of this month, we will celebrate the days of the dead, our ancestors – Hallowe’en, Samhain, el Dia de los Muertos, All Saints and All Souls…Let us prepare for those days as we watch the trees let go their leaves, animals stock up for their winter’s lean snooze, and see the ground soften under the rain before the freeze. The coming winter, like death, is not an ending, but a resting, another season of transformation.
Earth-based traditions have a helpful perspective on these issues of transformation. My dear friend, Jonathan White, is a Wiccan priest, writer, teacher, and social worker. At one point, discussing death, he said that part of what his traditions have to teach is that we are all and always part of the Big Picture. We cannot ever be parted from the Big Picture, and our existence is eternally meaningful in that Big Picture. This insight was a great consolation to me in my grief. We are never separated from anything else in existence.
Our culture has problems with this idea. From Christianity’s Paul of Tarsus, to contemporary secular understandings to many New Age doctrines, we learn that the body, especially in its soft, oozy, “ickiness”—most of all when it decays after death—is infinitely less valuable than the mind, less enduring than the soul. We can even say, according to Paul, “corruptible.” Paul is wrong here. The body is not corruptible in this sense. What do I mean by this? I mean that ickiness is not corruption. Decay is not corruption. Decomposition is not corruption. I mean that “return” to Earth is not corruption. What changes, what is transient or temporary, is simply participating in the greater life of the Universe. I argue, then, that the body is at least as eternal as any other part of human existence.
I wonder about the teachings that the saved soul is incorruptible and the body corruptible. Is the soul what we associate with consciousness, interior essence, or personality? We “lose consciousness” at death. Many religious traditions teach that consciousness moves on to another plane of existence, to a shadowy realm near us, to an intermediate stage between this life and another just like it, or to everlasting bliss or eternal agony. In whatever way, many religions teach that the part of us that is most enduring is that part that we cannot see or get a handle on concretely.
We are changed in death. We are changed every moment, and perhaps never more profoundly than when we die. It is the nature of life of existence, of matter; it is the nature of our energy to be changed and changed and changed again, always changing. Never destroyed, never called ex nihilo—out of nothing—into creation.
For example, it had always been the case that I was connected to my father and that I am connected to him now, after his death. It had always been the case that I had the shape of my father’s eyes and the color of my mother’s. It had always been the case that my hands reflected the shape of both my father’s and my grandmother’s before his. Laughing out loud, talking with my hands, falling into melancholy, there are countless ways of being genetically, environmentally connected to our biological parents.
That way of connection is obvious. Life continues. Those who have children pass on their genes and we know the story from there.
To take this further, we might refer to the book of the prophet Jeremiah, where we read that God knew us and held us and had all the bits of us in an eternity before we were born. There is no part us that was or is or will ever Not Be. No energy. No matter. Nothing. Everything that has been or will be emerged in that first flaring forth at the birth of the universe.
In the final analysis, we are all ageless.
But consciousness, we say. Consciousness is lost, and that’s the hard part, the part we most grieve when others die, the part we fear losing when we consider our own deaths. What do we lose as we cross the boundary of death, that border so fine and so definite?
Many definitions of consciousness talk about aour sense of our own thoughts and experiences in time. Significantly, consciousness relies on a separate “me.” An “I” founded on an ego structure that—of necessity—gives us a sense of separation. People talk sometimes about “higher” or “deeper” consciousness, or even “God-consciousness” when sometimes I think they mean innocence, lack of consciousness, or lack of self-reflection. Those mystical states seem rather a dissolution into the Great Sea that is God, the Cosmos, all energy and matter.
When our existence has more brainpower, when we “live” we find ourselves separate. And that separateness allows us to act on our own and other people’s behalf. And yet, this separation really is illusion. Is it not a trick—even if a necessary trick—of consciousness that makes us think we are separate in any way?
Even those of us who are embalmed and buried in cemetery rows, even we return to our tasks of existence, our works of cause and effect, of connectedness and no-thingness. It takes longer for our bodies to break down into our constituent parts, but even while we’re in that casket, we’re still participating in existence. And furthermore, Earth will have what is Hers. Everything emerges from something else; we emerge from ourselves and every other living thing. And not only that, but dead or alive, our actions have effects, our choices, our living, our breathing…and those effects spiral out into forever, one effect breeding another and another. Though our names pass out of memory, still we will in some way be changing the world.
We are all part of the Big Picture. Nothing, nothing, nothing: “neither height, nor depth, nor principalities nor powers” can separate us from what Paul of Tarsus called the love of God and what I might call the embrace of the Universe. Not only are we carried on in memory, in DNA, and in the effects of our many actions in life, but our deaths usher us into a continuing rich engagement with existence. Our deaths become others’ lives and those lives die and fade into new life, forever changing, moving, creating, and destroying and creating again.
There is more to the story. I return to that day last October, to the moments after we had finished scattering the ashes, on the land and into the creek, into the air and under the trees.
My father’s ashes floated down Laurel Run into Slab Cabin Creek, down Spring Creek to the Susquehanna towards the sea past the Chesapeake Bay. I could romantically think of them as floating out to sea, hundreds of miles away, and maybe some bits of him did so. In any case, what I know is that he continues. Taken up into fish, into soil, into my body, into plants and animals and soil microbes. Soil microbes who are, as ever, doing their work making the ground fertile, using countless particles—some from my father, and most from other beings passing from life into death and taken back to life. Nutrients pass into trees and fungi and flowers blooming in irresistible fragrance year after year… Giving, always giving, never separate, always a part of the Big Picture.