Friday, September 28, 2012

Then Comes Marriage

A Daunting Project

Late last winter Skinner House Books, the UUA’s in-house press put out a denomination-wide call for proposals for a wedding guide.  In the brief call, they recommended my 1993 book In Memoriam: A Guide to Modern Funeral and Memorial Services as the sort of format they were seeking. (I was once told In Memoriam is Skinner House’s all time best-selling book.  I was pleased it and I were mentioned in regards to the proposed wedding guide.) Colleagues asked me if I were going to submit a proposal for the wedding book, out of deference I suspected, or not to waste their time if a decision had already been made—that  I might have an inside track.  I told them I didn’t intend to submit.  I was sincere, speculating, too, that Skinner House might want a new voice regarding the great rites of passage. (In addition to In Memoriam, in the last decade I produced four separate quote collections for the great rites of passage: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death.  Nevertheless, I did submit a proposal for a wedding guide, after receiving a personal request to do so from the acquisitions editor, whom I worked with on my previous six books.  I literally dashed off the proposal.)

In June, my editor asked me to work up a more detailed proposal for the review of Skinner House’s Editorial Board.  As she put it, my initial proposal was at the top of the pile of submissions.  I was a little surprised, especially since I’d not thought much about the project for a couple of months.  Of course, I was pleased, feeling for the first time enthusiasm for a UU wedding guide, thinking it would be an addition to my right of passage oeuvre—a capstone.

So in July, I spent considerable time working up a more detailed proposal.  To do so, I was aware of the political shoals of our Association, meaning sensitivity to the various communities that always need to be addressed: same sex, neo-pagan, non-theist as well as theist, traditionalists, and non-traditionalist, humanist, feminist, and so on.  I quickly realized that an inclusive UU guide to wedding ceremonies was a daunting project, particularly to please a scrupulous Editorial Board rife with UU political sensitivities.

As I strove to put together a proposal that might pass their review, I also focused on the institution of marriage itself, to get a handle on the meaning and purpose of a wedding ceremony leading to a legally binding marriage or that everything-but legal covenant between same sex persons, a Civil Union.  Civil Union ceremonies also had to be put into the proposal equation.  The whole project begged for inclusivity, clarity, relative simplicity yet expansiveness, poetic inspiration, and general marketability.

Whether or not my proposal results in a contract, I’m glad for the experience.  It caused me to thoroughly explore what marriage was and is and even speculate what it might become.  (If I do produce a wedding guide, I might shape the institution of marriage’s becoming.) Interestingly and not insignificantly, I did my work while spending the month with my 95 and 96 year old parents, married for 73 years.  And of course Ellie and I have 44 years of marriage.

A treacherous aspect of speaking to marriage as a theme (as in this address) involves dramatic changes that have taken and continue to take place in American society. It’s easy to offend one component or another, including the intentionally single.

Demographics Reveal the  Reality of the Institution of Marriage

Have you heard that the majority of Americans now live outside of so-called traditional marriage?  A review of the statistics from the 2010 census is revelatory, as chronicled in a 2011 NYTimes article, from which I now extensively quote.

“Married couples represented just 48 percent of American households in 2010, slightly less than in 2000, but far below the 78 percent of households occupied by married couples in 1950.
“What is more, just a fifth of households were traditional families — married couples with children — down from about a quarter a decade ago, and from 43 percent in 1950, as the iconic image of the American family continues to break apart.
“In recent history, the marriage rate among Americans was at its highest in the 1950s, when the institution defined gender roles, family life and a person’s place in society. But as women moved into the work force, cohabitation lost its taboo label, and as society grew more secular, marriage lost some of its central authority….
‘Today, traditional patterns have been turned upside down. Women with college degrees are now more likely to marry than those with just high school diplomas, the reverse of several decades ago.
“Rising income inequality has divided American society, making college-educated people less likely to marry those without college degrees. Members of that educated group have struck a new path: they marry later and stay married. In contrast, women with only a high school diploma are increasingly opting not to marry the fathers of their children, whose fortunes have declined along with the country’s economic opportunities….
“Married couples may be half of all households, but that does not mean that only half of Americans will ever be married. The overwhelming majority of Americans — with some exceptions — do eventually marry (though increasingly, working-class people do not stay married).
“Households are changing in other ways. Americans are living longer than ever, so households now include a growing number of elderly singles. Other factors have been the large influx of immigrants, who tend to be single people in their 20s and 30s, and the growing number of young people who live together without being married.
“There are 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, in which married couples make up fewer than 50 percent of all households, up from just 6 states in 2000.
“In all, 41 states showed declines in traditional households of married couples with children. In 2000, married couples with children were fewer than 20 percent of all households in just one state, plus the District of Columbia. Now they are fewer than a fifth in 31 states.
“The biggest change for the decade was the jump in households headed by women without husbands — up by 18 percent in the decade. The next largest rise was in households whose occupants were not a family — up by about 16 percent.”

Wow! In 1950, seventy-eight percent of the adult population was married. Today it is forty-eight percent, though a greater percentage has been or will be married sometime. The safest pronouncement regarding marriage is, it’s an option; but it’s no longer normative.  Yet as an option, particularly for the well-educated, so it seems, it answers particular personal needs and serves society.

Marriage’s Evolved Meaning

I’ve performed several hundred wedding ceremonies in my three and a half decades of liberal ministry. The larger portion by far involved couples outside the two congregations I’ve served.  Unless, asked, I don’t formally counsel the couple; but in an initial interview, I frame the event for them by drawing on insights I’ve cobbled together through the years. I may, in the actual ceremony offer a few words formally known as an “admonishment:” that a declaration of marriage is a serious but not solemn undertaking, from the Roman Church though the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

I tell them that a marriage ceremony contains symbolic elements that connect to the medieval Catholic Church and cultures of Europe. I explain how the ceremony evolved into the generic Protestant outline I follow. 

I never neglect to mention that a wedding ceremony is a public event, with the invited guests serving as proxy representatives for all of society.  Society has a vested interested in committed relationships for the sake of its own survival.  In this regard, a marriage is foundational, a conservative element in our larger society.  So the words spoken on the couple’s behalf, as well as the words they say, have additional importance for the perpetuation of society.

Early on as a minister, I fell under the influence of an analysis called the Natural History of a Marriage.  In the light of this analysis, I sometimes caution the couple, in a loving way, of course, that they may be getting married for a cluster of wrong reason... In the throes of peer, family, and cultural influences, as well as the intoxication of early love, neither has a true sense of the other, yet.  So one day, when the proverbial honeymoon is over, one or both will wake up one morning, and find they married a figurative stranger.  Then, whether its seven months or seven years, the real work of creating a deep relationship will begin.  Here, I toss in a little of Martin Buber’s notion of an I/Thou, subject/subject relationship, when each part of the equation accepts the other in her and his fullness of being—as subject (or complete person) and not an object.  When this occurs, the Eternal Thou—God—is realized.

In more recent years I might tell a couple not to expect each partner to first and forever fill all the needs of the other.  The mere expectation is a recipe for failure.  No one person can fulfill another person’s needs.  Here I interject what Joseph Campbell called the myth of marriage, that the myth exists outside each partner; and a marriage succeeds when the couple first commit to the myth they share before committing to one another.

Anecdotally, the ceremonies I perform generally result in enduring marriages, perhaps because they are among those with college degrees, who have chosen to postpone marriage for career or in anticipation of just the right spouse.  Only a few that I know of have led to divorce.  This probably measures the relatively mature and thoughtful persons who seek me out, wanting to begin their life together with the sort of a personally meaningful ceremony properly conceived as a religious ceremony.

From what I understand, the state’s involvement in issuing so-called marriage licenses resulted largely from nineteenth century lobbying by evangelical Protestants, eager to impose their moralism on society.  Through the nineteenth century a preponderance of marriages were what we now call common law. …

Same sex marriage continues to be a controversial issue in the so-called, ongoing culture wars.  I come to Gay Marriage with some experience, as well as wide ranging knowledge of the evolution and meaning of marriage.

I favor same sex marriage as a matter of civil rights, including equal opportunity and protection, under the Constitution.  Btu even more I favor it for intimate, relational, and social reasons, which my longtime companion Ecclesiastes has helped inform.

My standard wedding meal blessing draws from Ecclesiastes, an ancient Old Testament work:  “Enjoy life with the one whom you love all the days of your life.  Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might.  Eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a merry heart, because your God has already approved what you do.”  [adapted]

Long ago I adapted the word “wife” to the phrase “the one whom you love,” to include the woman as well as the man.  Now, as I’ve come to realize that love, straight or gay, comes from the same impulses and has the same results, I’ve expanded my public intentions in saying “Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of your life.”  If the one you love is of the same sex, I simply and emphatically say, “Yes and yes.”

A public ceremony (wedding) and a civil contract (license) together give a love relationship meaning and imprimatur, plus legal status, no less or more for a same sex couple, as for a heterosexual couple.

My Expression of Marriage’s Meaning

Eight years ago I had the distinct honor of presiding over my daughter’s wedding in California.  I wrote the following “Introduction” for the occasion, something of a summary of my understanding of marriage’s meaning.

Katie and Mike, this is your day.

You are about to declare your marriage to one another and to the world.  This is the day you’ve been arcing toward throughout your separate lives from the days you were born.

Today, before your families and friends, you will declare that you are married, that you are, indeed, from this day onward husband and wife—a relationship that is honored for its steadfastness and respected for its integrity.

There is no relationship like a marriage in which there is a giving of self—freely and gladly— and in which there is taking from the other –in desire or in need—as the occasion demands.

What allows such a relationship to succeed is not so much desires fulfilled or needs met, but a commitment to the marriage itself, which is greater than desire and need.  Your marriage will be outside of either of you, but possible only through both of you.

A marriage is a sacred undertaking.  It is the means to a new courage, a more resilient strength to make a larger world out your singular worlds, a sanctuary of comfort and peace, and a mutuality of desire fulfilled.  A marriage is a sacred undertaking born and reborn through the changes of your lives together.

Your marriage is a commitment to fashion a cup of meaning that holds children in its midst, seeking their nurture, that they may mature into capable and confident human beings.

Mike and Katie, this is your day.

Perched as you are on the threshold of your marriage, take pause to appreciate the declaration you are making.  Know the hope you have within you—a reasonable hope.   Imagine the richness that converges for you and opens to an even greater richness you may together create—richness expanding out of richness. 

As you pause and appreciate, make a silent, solemn, sincere vow that you shall keep your individualism, while not violating the individualism of your partner in your life together.  Let your personalities be greater than before, because you choose to be wife and husband to one another.   Thus you will grow in love, because you will continue to grow individually.

Katie and Mike, this is your day.

We,—your parents, your families, your friends,—we give you our enthusiasm and support for what you are undertaking.  We give you our love, of course; and when you seek the wisdom of our days, we will offer you our counsel.  Don’t hesitate, ever, to call on us. 

We are implicated with you in the sacredness of your marriage.  You extend, continue, and complete us.  We are more than witnesses, we are participants in this great occasion.

Mike and Katie, this is your day.

We give you our blessings, as well as our hopes on this momentous day

Monday, September 24, 2012

Teaching the World To Die: Unitarian Universalist Death Ways

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For the last few summers, I’ve worked on a series of discrete projects with an eye to independent publication
  •  in 2010, I journaled an extended meditation on the Book of Ecclesiastes, a reflective journey into an ancient wisdom tradition that I independently published as Wisdom for the Ages; 
  • in 2011, I collected and edited my poetic meditations, sermons, and other writings  around the extended Holidays and independently published the collection If Only for the Season; 
  • and this summer, I wrote an historical and opinion essay on UU attitudes about death, some 8,000 words, for publication as a Kindle edition I called “Teaching the World to Die.”
Before settling on the UU ministry, I’d studied and planned to be an historian, perhaps teaching and researching in the academy.  My area of interest was ante-bellum U.S. history, specifically popular intellectual history—the sort of trends and interests of the hoi polloi. For example, I studied the enthusiastic religions that followed the westward progress of the Erie Canal from the great revivals of Charles Finney, through the rise of Mormonism and other home grown religions, through the phenomenon of Spiritualism on the brink of the Civil War.  In graduate school, 1969-70, at Vermont during the Vietnam War and Kent State, I became interested in the roots of the American Peace Movement, discovering that the first American Peace Society was formed  in William Ellery Channing’s study.  That introduction to Unitarianism changed the trajectory of my life.

I’m still an historian at heart, with the gathering of information and its ordering into a narrative my essential approach, the narrative having a purpose and always open to reinterpretation.  I love history, yet maintain that any history is only one version of many possibilities.

History isn’t one story, but many stories.

The story I tell in “Teaching the World to Die” is about how we historic Unitarians and now contemporary Unitarian Universalists have greatly influenced American death ways.  I’m a player in this history.  Over the course of two centuries our tradition has humanized and domesticated death, resisting supernaturalism and its traditions, lifting up what is naturally transcendent and sacred about a human life.  It’s a grand story set in what, for many is still a morbid context.

The Rural Cemetery Movement

It begins in the 1830s around Boston, already the Athens of American and home to the Enlightenment religion freedom, reason, and tolerance known as Unitarianism.  There was a reform movement led by Unitarians that sought to take death out of the pallor of the church’s graveyard into the countryside and beneficences of Nature.  The movement had sanitary or health considerations, and cities, including Boston, were running out of burial space.  These Unitarian reformers looked to a classical ideal known as a cemetery (place of repose) in the countryside resulted in a cultural phenomenon in Cambridge known as Mt. Auburn, the first carefully landscaped rural or garden cemetery, a place for the living and for the dead in the context of Nature.  This picturesque place became a bona fide tourist attraction, the equal of sublime Niagara Falls. Soon similar suburban cemeteries became a national standard.


Next, in the 1870’s, a radical Unitarian minister in NYC  Octavius Frothingham preached the first sermon advocating cremation, an option made possible by the recent technology of the crematorium brought to the US from Europe.  Frothingham’s arguments were really thinly veiled remonstrances against supernatural religions and the superstations they promoted. 

Cremation was slow to catch on, particularly in the face of an aggressive funeral industry grounded in embalming—one of the legacies of the Civil War, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His embalmed body took a slow journey from Washington to Springfield and was viewed along the route.

Memorial Society Movement

After World War II, an emergent Memorial Society Movement, in the name of the people, resisted the practices of the firmly entrenched funeral industry.  Cremation, somewhat dormant, then offered an alternative to an immediate and often costly funeral.  With cremation a memorial service at a later date was possible.  Many Unitarian congregations led the way in establishing local memorial societies.  In fact, the San Francisco Memorial society was organized in a Unitarian minister’s living room, attended by a small group that included Jessica Mitford’s attorney husband.  Ms. Mitford soon wrote one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, The American Way of Death that challenged the funeral industry’s practices and launched a larger consumer movement.

Celebrations of Life

Unitarian clergy also led the way in creating a new sort of final rite of passage, not a mournful funeral, rather a memorial service (often) that acquired the name of “Celebration of Life.”  My twentieth century colleagues became accomplished and renowned for speaking to the deceased life in a thorough, loving, and honest fashion.

I built on this tradition when in the early 1990s I published my innovative collection of memorial service templates in a Skinner House Book: In Memoriam: Modern Funeral and Memorial Services reissued in a 2000 second edition, now with an eye to a future third edition.  As I’ve mentioned before, In Memoriam is a best-seller and now considered a classic.

Through these four innovations led and supported by our forebears, the rural cemetery movement, cremation, the memorial society movement, and artful celebrations of life as a person’s final passage, I make a persuasive case for how our tradition has taught the world to die, not to shrink from death but to put it in a natural and human scheme.

This morning I can only sketch this little history.  I recommend that you take the time to read the essay that is available on Amazon as a Kindle.  Incidentally, you don’t need a Kindle device.  You can download a Kindle reader to your computer, easily, quickly, and without cost.  The cost of the essay is a modest ninety-nine cents.

I am proud to have personally played an important part in this ongoing reform movement.  Death is at the heart of human meaning, and religions seek to offer meaning. How we face death as a liberal religious tradition is one of our sterling marks. 

After we sing our second hymn, I’ll sketch our UU outlook about the keystone to Life’s meaning.

Death and Dying Among Contemporary Unitarian Universalists

Unitarians had an abiding interest in reforming American death ways. They significantly influenced, intellectually and practically, how the greater culture deals with the overarching reality of the human condition: mortality and death. Unitarian innovations and reforms cited in this essay served to domesticate death in the name of the universal human condition; challenged traditions and the supernaturalisms that supported those traditions; resisted the commercialization of death by a funeral industry; and lifted up the dignity and worth of the deceased through artful and meaningful “celebrations of life.”
There is a palpable Unitarian Universalist way for meeting death, though that way is not prescribed. Remember, Unitarian Universalism is non-creedal, as well as progressive. Its ethos has continually encouraged the proving of all things while holding on to that which is good. This search for truth has been tempered, humanized, by love. To seek the truth in love is an enduring mantra. That notion of love has many dimensions, ranging from love of self and others like one’s self to a love of Life and its often-inscrutable ways.

Here are markers of Unitarian Universalism’s contemporary, convergent attitudes and understandings regarding death.

Death should not be invisible. Death is a hard reality both to accept within one’s own mortality and to experience through a beloved. The American culture has devised strategies of denial. Yet death is a pathway to living fully, even joyfully, in the moment. The ancient philosophers, the Stoics in particular, counseled memento mori to be regularly reminded that living is dying, not obsessively, but now and again to give living context and perspective.

Think of Unitarian Universalist ways in terms of the domestication of death, coming to a certain intimacy with death through a variety of attitudes, behaviors, and strategies: memento mori, including contemplation of mortality in a garden cemetery or similar setting, not sequestering the aged or dying, leaving the body in a natural (unembalmed) state, tangibly commemorating the deceased, and through subsequent years remembering.

Death should be conditioned by Nature.  This might be literal, that is, interring the body, or cremation remains in a garden cemetery or similar natural setting. Cremation allows many options, including scattering at a meaningful site or several sites. Unitarian Universalist churches may have a carefully designed cremation garden or more informally include the ashes in a planting, the tree or shrub serving as a living memorial. Furthermore, death should be construed as part and parcel of Nature’s cycles of Life continuing through the generations—a natural phenomenon. Being natural, death is right and fitting in Nature’s scheme. Nature inspires a richer living through acceptance of mortality’s place in the Web of Life.

Death of a loved one, friend, or member of a community should be observed in an artfully crafted funeral or memorial service. In this service, a formal eulogy or a series of individual remembrances speak with loving truth of the life that the deceased chose to live, the influences that played on her or him through the years, how she or he shaped our common world, and what of that person endures in us. With a dignified service and the promise to remember, the deceased have has a blessed assurance that in death and repose there might be a peace said to pass understanding.

Unitarian Universalist ministers should be, and generally are, well prepared to plan and conduct funeral and memorial services, entrusted by their congregations and a larger community to navigate the complexities of end of life concerns and rituals. This includes grief-counseling skills. A Unitarian Universalist minister seeks to express transcendent meanings, such as the continuing influence of love that the deceased brought into the world—a love that endures and is passed on through the generations.

The funeral and memorial service should address the varied grief that the family and gathered community are experiencing. This includes a continuing promise to remain steadfast for those who grieve, acknowledging that grief is an extended process, unique to each person who grieves.

Death should be planned for. This planning has certain aspects. Every individual should leave instructions about final wishes. This includes the practical and existential, what is often included in a Living Will, regarding the parameters of medical procedures to take or not to take in one’s final days. A Living Will often designates a trusted person to have Power of Attorney for Health Care, charged to make ultimate decisions. Such a directive often is accompanied by a designation of the same or other person to have a fiscal Power of Attorney. Of course, a legally drawn will alleviates hindrances and complications of the deceased’s estate. Valuable, too, are instructions regarding final rites; this includes disposition of the body, burial or scattering. Instructions might include memorialization, such as cemetery plot and monument, but also designated charities for contributions in the deceased’s memory. It is good to memorialize in tangible forms; and for those who survive, it is good to visit memorials, respecting and remembering. Also important are directives for the funeral or memorial service: music, readings, participants, officiant, location, and the like, again in consultation with family and clergy.

It is good to do such planning in conversation with family and perhaps clergy. This models how to confront death, honestly and compassionately, letting genuine feeling have its full day. Such planning has benefits when death comes with grief in its wake.  

Such planning addresses considerations around consumer concerns regarding funeral providers. A valuable resource is the not-for-profit  Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) successor to the memorial society movement’s national organization. The FCA declares, “We are the only 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral. We offer education and advocacy to consumers nationwide and are not affiliated with the funeral industry.” The FCA website has many valuable resources to inform and guide.

Typically, after a house and car, a funeral is a person’s third greatest life expenditure. End of life arrangements should not be undertaken during duress, when circumstances are pressing and emotions are vulnerable to compliance techniques. All involved should counsel together about desired arrangements before death comes.

Hospice care, often at home, has become an increasing choice for Unitarian Universalists. This fits earlier considerations regarding the domestication of death.

An emerging option among Unitarian Universalists is green burial, allowing the unembalmed body, often in a simple shroud, to decompose naturally in a natural setting. This reflects scruples about cremation’s effects on the environment, particularly the energy required to fire the crematorium. Green burial also looks to the body’s constituent parts leaching back into Nature. (In advocating for a rural cemetery in the early nineteenth century, Unitarians cited a dramatic example of Nature’s embrace of the body. When the body of Major John Andre was exhumed in 1821, his skull was held and pierced by roots of a peach tree. For those advocates of the taking death into the countryside, this offered a romantic and compelling example of “Nature’s embrace.”) Today, green burial resonates to the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle: “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.”

There is no doubt that the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” summarizes, as well informs this liberal religion’s attitudes regarding its death ways. Through two centuries Unitarian Universalists have increasingly emphasized the personal and universally human, especially above traditional dogma and theology. 

Unitarian Universalist reforms and innovations around death and dying emphasize essential human dignity. Unitarian Universalists find the human condition transcendent and sacred.

As I intoned in In Memoriam:

A human life is sacred.
It is sacred in its being born.
It is sacred in its living.
And it is sacred in its dying.