Two years ago, I mentioned that the Universalist General Convention appointed the first Sunday in October as a memorial day “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.” Then I wondered about how people should not remember the dead; now I wonder why they should. For personal and professional reasons, I’ve been thinking about our care for the dead lately, and this unobserved observance fits the bill. I think it’s time we rehabilitate it in worship.
But still, why? Death divides families and circles of friends. Once gone, all the living have is memory, whether mental or in the artefacts that bring the dead to mind. (I have a mixing bowl, once my grandmother’s, that never fails to make me think of standing besides her as a child.) All the dead have is God.
Beyond the personal loss is our basic concern about human worth and dignity. We are divided from our dead, and deprived of their presence and love, but they have no control of their memory or legacy. Consider the stories of strangers who come to the funerals of the otherwise forgotten people. We have complex and costly ways of caring for our dead, and while the ways are different, this memorializing behavior comes close to being universal. We care for the dead because they cannot care for themselves. They deserve “the right thing.”
Our Universalist witness started with the benevolence and justice of God’s nature, extrapolated the blessings of the divine love towards us, and led to the sometimes-uncomfortable consciousness that we human beings are kindred with a common origin and a common destiny. So when we hear from the Washington Avowal (1935) of “the supreme worth of every human personality” or even the current Unitarian Universalist Association affirmation of the “inherent worth and dignity of each person” we can be assured that it rests on a theological foundation (albeit one that’s rarely cited) and not simply a political or cultural legacy. And even as we care for the dead who cannot care for themselves, we care for the living who cannot care for themselves. The vulnerable young, old or sick. Those plagued by violence, disaster or misfortune. Those parted from friends and far from home. Caring for the beloved dead directs us to care for the living stranger.
This is an important religious value, as the other ways we show worth so often betray us, and them. Appeal to political power? If we can trust our leaders, and trust that our concern will not be converted to their own enrichment. Appeal to the market? There’s certainly indication that companies care for defending the right, but again the bottom line is the bottom line: profit and enrichment. God alone rises above the rent-seeking manipulation of daily life. So when we take our concerns to God – for the living and the dead – we demonstrate our trust in a different way of living, and different values. We also affirm the continuity of human life from land to land and shore to shore – and beyond that last shore from which our loved ones do not return. This is a part of our Universalist hope.
Twice in the last week I have been asked for a basic defense or explanation of Universalism, but I lacked something ready to share. I’ll be working on this in the coming months.
Planning for the 250th anniversary of John Murray’s landing in America in 2020? Please contact me at email@example.com
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells