All Souls. All Saints. Dia de los Muertos. Some of us Christians have recently celebrated these days of remembrance. As the days grow shorter, their timing is no accident.
We are moving into winter. The light is fading. And the Church takes this as an opportunity to turn our minds toward death. Not death for death’s sake, but death as a platform from which to consider what comes afterward.
Christians are not alone in marking the waning of the light. The Cambodian P’chum Ben and Celtic Samhain are but two of the ways persons of other faiths celebrate this time of year when they believe the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin. And each of these commemorations focuses on remembering those who have gone before us … our beloved dead.
Unlike some faiths, we Christians don’t worship our ancestors, but unlike atheists, we don’t just miss them either. Because we believe that with death life is changed, not ended, their passing does not remove them as members of the human community. We have an ongoing relationship with them. Our particular stripe of Christianity determines what form that relationship takes. We may do something as ordinary as privately display a collection of family pictures. We may write and recite family histories. In a more public way we may build and visit memorials we make to the dead. We may do something even more visible by gathering and saying communal prayers for them.
No matter how it is we remember the dead, there are thoughts and there are emotions involved. The bio-chemists would tell us those thoughts and emotions are simply electrical signals and chemical excretions. And they are that. But what if there is more? What if, as Carl Jung said, there is something outside us – the something he called the collective unconscious. What if each of us has a brain and it is not isolated from others’ brains? What if there is Mind (or God for those of us who are more religious) in which we all share and through which we are all connected … the living and the dead – all members of the human family?
If consciousness does not cease at death (which granted is a big “if”) and if we consider our beloved dead in light of a connecting Mind, might not “remembering” the dead actually be a form of “re-membering”/ reweaving the deceased into our lives. This is a concept our Native American sisters and brothers may find foreign. For them ancestors don’t need reweaving. They are never far away. Our concept, however, of the dead having “gone to heaven” serves to separate us from them. We relegate them to somewhere else … somewhere we can’t be.
But what if there is nowhere they can be that God/Mind is not also? What if we are eternally connected – that in this God/Mind we all live and move and have our being? Even if that isn’t how it all works, we First World, educated folks, as much as persons with more primitive world views, seem to need to feel connected. Even with all our science and our technology we still have rituals the purpose of which is to re-member our loved ones? Any difference between us and Indigenous folks who put food out to “feed” the dead is merely one of degree.
I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of what happens at death. I do know I’m glad we Christians didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that just because our religious predecessors believed in a connection between the living and the dead, and we are far more advanced than they, we won’t. If it’s just biochemistry, so be it. I, however, choose to continue to believe in a very real Communion of Saints – the spiritual union that transcends time and space and unites the living with the dead.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.