From Relics to a Cool Mortician
Listen to the audio of this post as preached at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church here.
The people of Western cities like New York, Paris and London—they would “burn their lips” if they even uttered the word death, writes the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it, it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love.”
I must admit that I didn’t know what to make of a banner hanging several months ago in front of St. Ita’s Catholic Church in Edgewater, where I live. The sign announced that the relics of St. Padre Pio would be on display. The Sun Times added that the relics—a lock of hair, some cotton gauze stained with Padre Pio’s blood, among other things—were expected to draw thousands.
How do we remain connected to the dead? To the saints? To the faithful departed?
Though, in the Bible “saints” first referred to all the people of God, early Christians begin to honor the memory of the martyrs. Roman catacombs show banqueting scenes, suggesting they dined with the dead. Soon they gathered the bones as well—a way to stay physically close to these holy people. Maybe not that different than people keeping the ashes of their departed loved one in their home. Altars and churches were built over the relics—the remains—of a dearly beloved saint. And of course, in the eucharist, the people of God communed—dined—with those who had gone before them.
Last November I visited the Mexican American museum in Pilsen to see the Day of Dead exhibit, which I highly recommend. You see wonderful, elaborate, creative and personal altars that honor the dead. In some places food is put out in cemeteries on the Day of the Dead.
This time of year—between the fall equinox and winter solstice—is considered a thin place, when the veil between heaven and earth is porous and God “leaks through” with greater abundance, as one writer puts it.
One Holy Trinity member told me that she would be attending a Double Ninth Festival, with her Chinese American husband a week ago. The festival involves visiting the graves of the ancestors, and sometimes putting out food as well.
On All Saints we remember our beloved dead. We write their names in the Book of Remembrance. We light candles. We place their photographs on altars. Yet notice how there are icons on the tables as well—reminding us that we are all connected in the mystical body of Christ. The presence of God dwells in all the saints, both those remembered as examples of holiness, and models of the Beatitudes, and those forgotten. And we share food and drink around a table, remembering them with reverence and affection.
Our connections with the dead continue. Facebook has more than 40 million deceased users with pages still active. People post memories and emoji hearts. As a Jewish litany for the dead puts it, “So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us.”
Even as death makes us uneasy, humans have always imagined the hereafter. It doesn’t appear what we shall be, but we shall be like God, we hear in I John. And Revelation give us the image of a great multitude from every tribe and language and people. Clothed in white. Palm branches in their hands. And praise on their lips.
Just in time for Halloween, November, Day of the Dead, All Saints, and the thin places of these days, I have a new hero: Caitlyn Doughty. She was interviewed on NPR and CBS Sunday Morning. She has a video series on You Tube called “Ask a Mortician.” There are episodes, for example, that consider how long it takes for a corpse to decompose or mummify. And I read her new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. Not only is Caitlyn wickedly funny, she is also profound.
And she is serving an important purpose. Though we live in a society that sanitizes death, she holds and creates a safe space so that people can grieve openly and honestly.
Doughty researches green burial and body composting. She writes about a ceremony in Japan in which mourners take chopsticks to pluck their bones from the cremation ashes. She tells of a man in rural Indonesia who cleans and dresses his grandfather’s mummified body—that has been in the home for two years. Like my reaction to relics, in all these situations that seem strange and make us uncomfortable, Caitlin invites to remain open to the customs of other cultures.
For ultimately, what she has learned about grief is this: our impersonal, expensive funeral process fosters our corrosive fear of death, and inhibits our ability to cope and grieve. Mourners everywhere do best when they care for the deceased and participate in rituals. Reminds me of a pastoral colleague who created a rite for washing the body of the deceased—returning to a practice common centuries ago.
In the hope of the resurrection, in thanksgiving for the saints, and with reverence for the earth and the cycle of nature, God holds space for us to be with all that it means to be human, including dying.
For all of us go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia. For today we dine with those who have gone before us. This is the feast of victory for our God.