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