We lost another fish at our house last week. We started with a batch of eight neon tetras about two years ago. They seem to be reaching the end of their lifespan. We have six left. At this point, our family has a routine for handling the death of a fish. If we aren’t able to lay it to rest right away, the fish will lie in state in the freezer for a few days, wrapped in a paper towel and a plastic bag. At the appointed time, a parent and the kids will gather outside, get a trowel from the potting shed, and dig a hole in the ground near the poplar tree closest to the house. Farewells are said, the hole is filled in, and a brick or rock is put on top to mark the place. Then we wash our hands. It is a sacred ritual, because it speaks to the love that surrounded the aquatic part of our family during their brief lifetimes. Being prepared, having a way of acknowledging death, makes our lives richer and more in touch with the Source of Love.
Death is part of life. We might try to protect ourselves or the ones we love from this reality. Even if we try, though, death eventually catches up to us. And, really, there is no need to ignore death. That our lives have an end is knowledge that helps us to make the most of the time we have. Accepting death means we can concentrate on our memories, and on carrying forward what we have learned from and the ways we have been loved by those who have died. When new people join our family through birth or adoption or partnership or found family creation, it is meaningful to bond by sharing the stories of the people whose lives helped make way for our lives.
There are people who taught me about care, compassion, and curiosity, and I want my children to know their names. Not all of them are ancestors in the strict sense; even those who I might have expected to outlive me have taught me things that are worth passing along. Rituals like the one we observe today give us an opportunity to share those names and those stories.
Some of us have ancestors who sacrificed everything, who found hope where there was none, all in preparation for the possibility that we might someday thrive. We remember them, by name if we can, in collective gratitude if we can’t. We honor our beloved dead for what they did for us, and we try to live our lives in a way that shows our thanks. May we conduct ourselves such that the people of the future, whether related to us by family ties or not, can look back in the same way.
You may have seen all or part of the funeral service for Rep. Elijah Cummings on Friday. I happened to be across the street from New Psalmist Baptist Church on Friday morning, so the traffic told me what time to tune in. One of the things his loved ones and colleagues said several times was that the Congressman always remembered that, “Our children are the living messengers we send to a future we will never see.” Rep. Cummings was active in ensuring that programs to support young people and their education and their health would outlast him. And by “our children,” he meant all of our children; there are no other people’s children. Whether there are kids in our household or not, what we do in the present has an impact on the people who will go forward to times and places we can barely imagine. What we do today matters, because today is the best opportunity we have.
As President Barack Obama recalled on Friday, “Two hundred years to 300 years from now, he would say, people will look back at this moment and they will ask the question “What did you do?” And hearing him, we would be reminded that it falls upon each of us to give voice to the voiceless, and comfort to the sick, and opportunity to those not born to it, and to preserve and nurture our democracy.”
Understanding that death and life are related, that they are two masks of the Creator as it was said in the story earlier, helps us to stay focused on our purpose in life. You may have your own way of saying what that purpose is. I tend to fall back on the prophet Micah: Do justice, love mercy, travel humbly with the Eternal.
It may be the case that some part of our spirit lives on after death. Maybe there is a heaven. Maybe echoes of our souls remain to help comfort our families. Maybe some part of us is propelled into the future to be reborn in a new way. If that’s your faith, may it bring you comfort. For myself, I don’t know for sure. I’d like to believe that we become like drops of rain, received into the ocean of the Eternal, rejoined with the Source of Love that we were always part of, even through the illusion of this life of separateness. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I believe the limits of the time we have between birth and death calls us to pay attention, to reflect on the past, to use what we’ve learned in the service of love.
My colleague Leslie Takahashi suggests that the memory, love, hope, and strength we have received from those who have gone before, these legacies that are now ours to care for and carry forward, these gifts are the way we can know immortality in the here and now. My colleague Kathleen McTigue assures us that, in this way, our beloveds are with us still. Folk musician Charlie Murphy reminds us that, in all things throughout the history of the earth, the circle of life remains.
So, what is it that the people who have gone before have given us? Maybe their time was brief, and love is all we have left. Love is enough. Maybe it was a lesson, or a sacrifice, or encouragement, or the possibility of being alive. Let’s take a moment to silently consider one aspect of the legacy we have received, one thing we will carry into the future. (Pause)
If you can summarize it with just one word, let’s speak into the circle, popcorn style, what is the legacy you are carrying forward? What gifts of the past are now ours to live into? Please speak one word as you are moved. (Words are shared)
May these gifts inspire us with hope, encourage us in faith, and sustain us in love. May we invite memory into our living, and may we create memories with our living. May we comfort one another and hold one another and bring one another into the future.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.