Ceremonies of Death, by Kenneth W. Phifer

My approach to the ceremonies of death as a Unitarian Universalist minister and Humanist leader grows out of several understandings and affirmations.  The first of these is that death is inevitable.  It is reported that near the end of his life, Somerset Maugham told a much younger relative: “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair.  My advice to you is to have nothing to do with it.”  He didn’t practice what he preached.  Neither will we.  We may evade taxes, bills, sorrow, poverty, and suffering, but we shall not escape death.  Hank Williams was right when he sang. “I’ll never get out of this world alive.”  None of us will.

Not that we don’t try.  Like w.e. Fields, who was found looking through a Bible when he lay sick-a-bed, he thought, though it was not true.  A friend who knew he was not ordinarily given to seeking comfort there inquired of him what on earth he was doing. Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.”  He didn’t find any because there are none.  We are “here to day and gone today.”  Death is inevitable.

Death is also natural.  Death is not a punishment we endure because we have committed some terrible wrong.  Death is not the result of some original sin our first ancestors indulged and then passed on to us through the generations by means of concupiscence.  Death is a natural part of the life cycle, a function of the enormous complexity that is part of the uniqueness and the wonder of our species.  There are single cell life forms which apparently do not die, but the tendency of organisms of even minor complicatedness is to run down, to wear out, to die.  Death is natural.

Death makes life precious.  That life is short and swift in its passage gives a poignancy and sweetness to our days that endless living would not. Meaningfulness in life grows out of our knowledge that we have only so much time in which to accomplish, to savor, to create, to relate, to act before our lives end. Walter Kaufmann once noted that he could not bear the kind of life he wanted to live for an eternity, “a life of love and intensity, suffering and creation, that makes life worthwhile and death welcome.” Because all whom we love and all that we care about will pass into dust and ashes, because “parting is all we know of heaven and all we need know of hell,” we give ourselves more fully and richly to the living of our days, creating the meanings of our existence and treasuring them in our wiser moments. Death makes life precious.

Though death is ultimately the most isolating experience we can have, it is far more importantly always a community experience as well.  No person is an island, unknown, uncared for, whose death makes no difference.  Each of us belongs to and in one or more communities-a family, a town or city, a church or work place or club, a union or political group or charitable organization.  Even the meanest of us is known to someone, maybe not by name but by presence, perhaps only to a social worker or police officer, but someone.  To be involved in a community means that we have some sense of where we belong in life and with whom and how.  We know in community that our death will touch others and change the way things are in however small away.  In community we share our joys and griefs and burdens.  In community we learn how it is that we make a difference. In death we are alone but we do not have to be lonely.  Death is a community event.