“Chasing Death” by Mark W. Harris

October 31, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from May Sarton

I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted, perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.

Responsive Reading #538 “Harbingers of Frost” by Robert T. Weston

Reading – from no death, no fear by Thich Nhat Hanh

Sermon – “Chasing Death” by Mark W. Harris

There was an article in the Boston Globe on Thursday about a method of earlier detection for pancreatic cancer. I always take note of such stories and read them thoroughly. My mother died of this type of cancer when she was 70, living only eighteen months after diagnosis. Her mother also died of cancer of the pancreas when she was only 53. I never met her, as my mother was pregnant with me when her mother’s death occurred. Once a few years back, my own doctor told me that there was no genetic predilection for this recurring in the same family like this. I received some relief from his words, as otherwise it might have felt like some impending affliction for either me or one of my siblings. Yet it still seemed significant to me that both mother and daughter had died of the same disease. Certainly when a father has prostate cancer as mine did, or especially if a mother has breast cancer, then we often feel as though the sword of Damocles hangs over our heads for that future day when the major disease or illness will come calling. I often morbidly jest that in my family we get cancer, but not heart disease.

There is an underlying presumption that killer diseases like pancreatic cancer must be battled with every last fiber of our being. We treat these diseases as an outside attack on our bodies, and as a result, modern medicine usually goes into war mode in order to save our lives. Yet sometimes those treatments seem to feel like they are killing us quicker than the disease. One of the crucial questions about the end of life, is when do we stop trying to save the person, and simply let them go. This is also a fundamental problem with health care costs, as such a high percentage of our expenses go into those final days when the chance of survival are long gone, and we should focus more on making our loved ones comfortable.

One of the problems is that we treat illness, and even death as something to be conquered. There is a presumption in the culture that it is not normal to one day get sick and die, and so we often don’t talk about these things, or we mask them in myriad ways. Andrea’s brother-in-law has recently been hospitalized due to a recurrence of throat and tongue cancer. He had major surgery, and mostly was not feeling up to having visitors. Finally, when Andrea went in this week, I think he felt some relief because he was worried that if he had visitors they would be repulsed by how he looked or ask too many questions, and her visit was a success because, as he said, “it was just normal.” They could just sit and talk without any kind of overriding judgment or upsetting response. While it may be difficult to be normal in these circumstances because body and soul are going through such trauma and change, I think we all want to hold on to our normal relationships and life as much as possible. Some years ago when I visited my brother when he had his throat surgery, we joked how he looked like Frankenstein, and was ready for Halloween, but the banter was a relief because I was not scared of how he looked, and thus he did not have to fear what others thought. He could just be himself.

Having our own way in responding to illness and death becomes an important theme at the end of the novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize last year, and is wonderfully written historical fiction that focuses on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who was one of King Henry VIII’s chief ministers. It is a revisionist interpretation because Cromwell, who is often described in the history books as an unscrupulous politician, here is seen as tolerant and humane, and Sir Thomas More, whose integrity has usually been celebrated in such plays and movies as A Man for All Seasons, comes across as the vicious, revenge filled tormentor of heretics. Cromwell recalls a story of his youth when he was with his father’s apprentice who was making nails from a scrap pile. These were “just common old flat-heads, he’d said, for fastening coffin lids. The nail rods glowed in the fire, a lively orange. “What for do we nail down the dead?” The apprentice responded: “It’s so the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us.” The author writes that Cromwell, “knows different now.” It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives. More apparently had spread a false rumor that a Protestant heretic named Bilney had recanted at the stake. Cromwell comments: “It wasn’t enough for him to take Bilney’s life away; he had to take his death, too.” Perhaps this is the central concern for us. We chase death down to capture and control and eliminate it. We don’t so much rewrite the lives of those who are dying, but we do take death away from them and us, as something alien and apart from our living when it should be the natural end, even the crowning glory. It should just be normal.

Time is often a consideration when we think about death. While we may be chasing death our whole lives, we are usually focused on how fast we can run to get away. We count our years and want to add to our time, and so while my mother died at age 70, and that was once considered old, we now think of 70 as young, a new middle age even, and that becomes especially true as we approach it. If a young person is killed or has to fight a serious illness, we may think how unfair life is that this could befall him/her at such a young age. That is true. But what is young? We may continue to think we didn’t deserve such a fate no matter what our age. We may say I want to live to see my grandchildren grow up, or to get to do that grand trip I dreamed about, or see my retirement home built, and sure that would be wonderful to get to do these things, but there are always unfinished dreams and tasks that will elude us. Think of the Biblical story of Moses. He dies before he gets to the promised land, even as he is just able to see it from the mountain top. Did he free his people from slavery in order to get this as a reward? He fights with God, and says how unjust it is that he cannot go with his people. He wonders how God could do this to him, but finally, he quits rebelling against his fate, and accepts his death as the end of his life of 120 years. See you knew 70 was young! Of course the point is that we cannot determine the perfect time to die. Projects won’t be finished. We can only fight so long. It hurts to let go of all we hold dear. Then in the end, we find we will see how much we have already been given that we did not deserve at all. This wonderful, amazing, miraculous gift of life, with the covenant from the beginning – it will end. And so if we don’t really know our time, then we must ask how am I living right now? This could be my final moment.

This becomes clearer to us as we age. The Dalai Lama, who is now 75, meditates on death every day. The loss of my parents many years ago now, accelerated my own contemplation of the end of my life. Then there was a near fatal accident for me, and more recently contemporaries beginning to die, and it becomes all the more real. When I wake in the night, again due to aging, I think more and more of my own end. The body is a regular reminder of natural developments that signal the demise of youth. The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote that we must rage, rage against the dying of the light, and not go gentle into that goodnight. Raging has its time, and so we fight to keep the body in some semblance of shape, and as the teeth fall out, as mine seem to with frightening regularity, we work harder to maintain health, and we adapt, so that we might enjoy living that much longer. Aches and pains of arthritis afflict us all, so we exercise to loosen muscle and bones that now seem more resistant to stretch, and we also learn to live with some degree of pain. We expect in the morning to have bones that echo the snap, crackle pop that should be coming from the cereal bowl, and muscles that behave like molasses, or motor oil when it is thirty below. We all find ways to fight the infirmities of aging. But we also know we can only stem the time and tide of aging for so long. So I notice the reminders, and fight the dying light.

Part of that fight may be because we don’t want to think about death. The thought brings fear – fear of pain, fear of being alone, and fear of what happens to us. When I mention this sermon topic, people sometimes react, “Oh that should be a real draw.” Woody Allen says, I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Of course the point of worship is not entertainment, or even thinking about important issues, but moreover celebrating the mystery of life. There is no greater mystery than what happens to us when we die. Many religions have formulated answers for what happens at the end. Time is also a consideration here, because it seems likely that to exist in time, we must be mortal, for immortality is endless. Where would we be without time? Some Unitarian Universalists believe in a life after death, some believe in reincarnation, and many feel that death is the end of all personal existence. At various times in my life I have held all of these positions, but what I know fundamentally is that death will bring a tremendous change, and mostly we push it aside, which is why we often use every medical option available to us. But most of us, when the time comes, would probably prefer to go gentle into that good night. One thing that will help us do that is to think about the end of our lives right now. Let others know in writing if you want aggressive medical treatments or intravenous feeding or not if you become seriously ill. There are no rules to follow because every end of life is different and uniquely yours, but because everyone has fears about death, an acceptance of our own mortality, and talking about it will help others work through this process.

The religious festivals that are commemorated at this time of year help bring to mind all those great souls who have lived out their days with devotion, dedication, courage and good works. This includes all those who we bring to mind that have parented and loved and taught us whose faces are still bright in our minds eye, but also those who stretch back over the centuries and contrbuted greatly to the building of the fabric of village and community life all over the world as they tilled the fields, scoured the mines, raised the children, painted the beauty and tragedy they behld, and molded the jars that contained their harvest, or the water that gave them life. Though the names may be lost, the life was bestowed that others might live. I have personally had the privilege of helping more than 150 families mourn the death and celebrate the life of their loved one. Each of these lives echoes the Biblical passage from Timothy that is frequently used at such services: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

In the Jewish tradition, the Kaddish is the mourner’s prayer, but the entire prayer only praises God, and does not memorialize the dead. Rabbi Irwin Kula in his book Yearnings suggests that this is because the world, our world is torn asunder by death, and the prayer goes out not to God, but for God, so that meaning can be brought back to life because this death has taken it away. God needs to be put back together, because the loss is so great. Death always diminishes life. It is also a prayer to help the people who have suffered loss to figure out what their relationship to the deceased is going to be. The person is gone, but we are still here, and thus the relationship is still here. How are we related to them now? There is also a practice of placing rocks on a monument. I see this especially when I give tours at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Graves like those of Julia Ward Howe will have little cairns built on top. These rocks tells of us the enduring memory of these people, like a mountain, but rocks also tells us that the loss of a person is a big weight to endure, a heavy loss, not only telling us of the weight of their contribution to the world, but the heaviness we feel at the loss.

If death takes away life, it is also what allows life to continue. Evolution has given us bodies that are suppose to get us to reproductive age, and not much beyond. The first half of life is orderly and follows a pattern, but afterwards is disorderly and unpredictable. Most of us are now in that evolutionary crap shoot stage, and can feel it with random aches and pains. “We get old,” Jonathan Weiner says, “because our ancestors died young.” Many would say my parents died young. Even though it is has been many years since they died, every day brings a new memory of my life with them. If I play ball with Asher, I recall playing ball with my Dad. If my shoulder hurts, I remember my father suffering with terrible arthritis at the age I am now. Each daily experience comes forth in light of those experiences from the days we shared. Those we have lost to death come alive in our thoughts, our own teachings of others, in the places we go and things we do. We come to see that the relationship does not die, but forms a new pattern in our lives. And with forgiveness, and with our own learnings about life, we come to let go of their failings – how they hurt us or embarrassed us or neglected us, and let the love we experienced live on in us, for as the scriptures teach, “love [is] strong as death.”
Each of us can come to chase death, not by conquering it, but by letting it be ours. “I am not ready to die,” says poet May Sarton, “But I am learning to trust death, As I have trusted life.,I am moving,Toward a new freedom, Born of detachment, And a sweeter grace, Learning to let go.”

With our mortality, death is our individual and communal inheritance. It comes to us all as the great equalizer. It is a reality that is hard to face, but when we see it as normal, as something to be accepted and even prepared for, then we can come to trust its presence in our lives, and even live more fully because we will see the normalcy and gentleness of that good night, and as medical questions come to us, we will balance the fight with a welcome acceptance of its universal embrace. Time makes us ponder how much life we will have, where and when we find meaning, and the ultimate mystery of life that we can only partly glimpse, but never know. We don’t know if there is life after death, but the true comfort may come from the knowledge that we do know that there is love after death. For the love we give to others is an immortality that surely lives on after death. What you gave to another will reverberate down through the ages – in a written or spoken word, in a family, in an institution, in a school, in a faith tradition. Love that was true yesterday will still be true tomorrow. The Buddha teaches that to say that something exists or not is wrong. We can make love manifest even if the person is gone. Surely love cannot be destroyed. A life that accepts death as true and ever present reconciles us with our common losses, and makes us more understanding of one another. We are held in a common container called life and death, and whichever side of the vessel we are on, there is love holding it together in truth and companionship and hope. Our common destiny brings us together in the memory of all souls, the loving power that upholds all life.

Closing Words – from Nancy Wood

A long time I have lived with you
And now we must be going
Separately to be together.
Perhaps I shall be the wind.
To blur your smooth waters
So that you do not see your face too much.
Perhaps I shall be the star
To guide your uncertain wings
So that you have direction in the night.
Perhaps I shall be the fire
To separate your thoughts
So that you do not give up.
Perhaps I shall be the rain
To open up the earth
So that your seed may fall.
Perhaps I shall be the snow
To let your blossoms sleep
So that you may bloom in spring.
Perhaps I shall be the stream
To play a song on the rock
So that you are not alone.
Perhaps I shall be a new mountain
So that you always have a home.