“Death is a comma, not a period!” declared the priest at the funeral of my cousin, Gayle (“Cookie”) Hirt. Cookie would have appreciated the metaphor; she loved to write, as anyone who ever received one of her voluminous letters knew, and she was looking forward to spending her retirement sitting beside a lake in northern Wisconsin, perfecting her craft. It was not to be, however, as she succumbed to lung cancer a few years ago, at the age of 56.
Sitting in Swedberg’s Funeral Home, sandwiched between my father and my uncle Les (my mother’s sole surviving sibling), I appreciated the priest’s remarks, which were meant to be consoling, but a part of me was also resistant – skeptical and unconvinced. Perhaps it was just my own critical-clerical self working overtime, as if this were my eulogy to deliver, but I found myself objecting: “certainly death is more than a comma, a mere pause to catch one’s breath. If not a period, then surely death deserves at least a semicolon!” For those who are bereaved, the feeling of separation that follows death is too strong to be adequately symbolized by the simple stroke of a comma. The full and final reality of loss must be honestly acknowledged and openly grieved.
And yet the deepest hopes and intuitions of humanity have always insisted that death is not merely termination or extinction. What lies beyond the threshold of death remains unknown to us: it is, one might say, more like a great question mark than anything else. And yet the dead remain somehow mysteriously close and present to us, inasmuch as we continue to be bound by connecting, interwoven threads that lie deeper than the grave. The great round of life goes on after any individual’s death, and we experience this life more fully when we recognize our own finitude, our own mortality, as well as our continuing connection with those who have died.
The poet, Paul Murray, expresses the interdependence of life and death when he reminds us that:
In their rites of passage,
In their crossings
The dead, like us, need love, need courage.
Let us pray for the dead.
And remember those who have been grazed
By the tip of death’s wing
And feel the heart, naked.
Let us pray for the living.
It has been said that life consists of a parenthesis between two eternities. Held within those sacred brackets, our experience is punctuated by moments when ‘the tip of death’s wing’ brushes near, stirring our awareness of life’s precious and fragile beauty. If we are attentive and wise, we can learn from such moments that all life is a gift, and that compassion is the eternal ground of all true prayer.
I’ve always felt that All Souls Day (November 2nd) ought to be considered a Universalist High Holy Day, when not just the saintly sort, but all souls are remembered and held within the embrace of divine love. The service on November 5th this year will be an opportunity to recognize and honor those loved ones who have passed away yet remain mysteriously with us somehow. In the words Hymn #96 from Singing the Living Tradition:
I cannot think of them as dead
Who walk with me no more;
Along the path of life I tread
They are but gone before,
They are but gone before…
In faith and fellowship,