Dissolved Into Happiness

December 30, 2007




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

December 30, 2007

“I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. There backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”[1]

(Willa Cather, My Antonia)

We gathered to lay my father’s ashes to sea. Waiting for all of the children and my granddaughter to arrive we spoke appreciatively to our hosts, Ann and Andy Hines. Ann and Andy are longtime friends of my mother and father who held one another in deep respect. Hampton Hines was also there, readying the boat that would take us out to the channel that flows through Egmont Key into the Gulf of Mexico. Hampton and I were childhood best friends. Together we killed more German and Japanese soldiers than ever filled a recruit’s uniform. Indians and Yankees did not fare well either under our blazing six shooters. On all fronts we proudly wore our uniforms of short pants, cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, and plastic gripped pistols with longhorns on them.

We boarded the thirty-five foot boat. Andy tipped his hat to the ladies, ever the Southern gentle man. Hampton took arms and hands to safely guide the funeral train aboard. We dispersed fore and aft. I chose to ride in the stern, close to my children and granddaughter. It would be from there that I would offer the psalms and read the Navy hymn, my father’s favorite. He served in the United States Navy during World War II. My company included my children’s mother, my brother and sister and other friends.

The seas were calm on this December afternoon. The temperature in the Tampa Bay area hovered around 70 degrees. As we pulled away from the dock a dolphin rose up out of the water joined by two offspring. They followed us some distance, gently rising and falling through the surface water. “That’s a good omen,” someone said tenderly. I was not sure what that meant, but I have often stood beside the yawn of opened earth in snow and freezing rain to commit poor souls to dust and ash. Warm green waters and bottle nosed dolphins were a more pleasant memorial milieu.

Entering the channel Hampton slowed the engine to a crawl before he cut it off. Forward motion gave way to the slight heaving of waves. Every one moved aft as we drifted in the pull of deeper waters. I read from The Book of Common Prayer the 121st Psalm, which concludes with those words of comfort, “The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”[2] From the 107th Psalm the awesome words of fear and hope:

“Some went down to the sea in ships

and plied their trade in deep waters;

They beheld the works of the Lord

and his wonders in the deep.

Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose,

Which tossed high the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to the heavens and fell

back to the depths;

their hearts melted because of their peril.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards

and were at their wits end.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,

and he delivered them from their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper

And quieted the waves of the sea.

Then they were glad because of the calm,

and he brought them to the harbor

they were bound for.”[3]

As the metaphor of the sea, so my father’s life roiled with the high waves of mechanical genius. Yet his massive stroke plummeted his soul to depths that nearly drowned him for thirteen years. How does a man overboard hold on to the flotsam when he thinks his own life is but jetsam? But that storm now was stilled and he would slip into the quieted waves of eternity, bound for the harbor of calm.

Time was tendered to those who would like to offer a memorial tribute to my father. Andy spoke the kind words of loyal friends. My sister spoke of her relationship with dad in quixotic images that I could not reconcile with history. In fact I found myself wondering whom she was talking about.

We all shook our heads as I lifted up the words of William

Whiting’s hymn:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidst the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep:

O hear us when we cry to thee

For those in peril on the sea.”

Quietly I instructed my sister to let the urn over the side of the boat. She stood motionless clutching and kissing it. Time became an embarrassment and everyone began to fidget. I was about to say, “You need to let him go or you need to go with him.” But with a pushing motion she thrust the urn off the stern.

It hit the water with a loud and unexpected “ker-thunk!” It was not the sound I anticipated. I imagined a gentle gurgle or lapping sound, not something hard as if it had fallen off a ten-story building. There was little splash and it disappeared quickly as if it were rushing to find the tidal flows. Each of us threw a red chrysanthemum where tiny bubbles now boiled up.

The urn was sand cast and surprisingly heavy. Because it was not fire glazed it would biodegrade. Sand and ash dissolved into the sea and my father returned to the amnion of life. His nutrients joined those of the ocean that brought forth all the creatures of land and sea and sky. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, my father now drifts with those “universal currents” of the “Great Ocean of Being.” As Willa Cather suggests, my father is dissolved into something entire – something complete – something great. Indeed, he is dissolved into something greater than his aged and broken body could never imagine.

I offer this reminiscence not as a perfect model of a family memorial. I trust you have detected the same tensions that every family feels on such momentous occasions as weddings and funerals. I do not offer you a definitive resurrection theology or a philosophy of life after death because I have neither. I am kin to Henry David Thoreau who was visited on his deathbed by Parker Pillsbury. Pillsbury wrote that he asked Thoreau, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

Thoreau replied, “One world at a time.”[4]

I do not speculate about the afterlife or who populates heaven or hell. Those are beyond my ability to know or define. I can say that I have trusted God to take me this far and can only trust God to take me into the future whose horizons I cannot perceive.

Like many of you I can rely on the words of psalms and hymns and poetry to see my way through death and dying. There is no theory or dogma that could ever bring me as much comfort as bards and minstrels. And while each of these serves to express my grief they also redirect my thought and my life back to the living. Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1837,

“Every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is making room for another. The oak dies down to the ground, leaving within its rind a rich virgin mould, which will impart a vigorous life to an infant forest. The pine leaves a sandy and sterile soil, the harder woods a strong and fruitful mould.

So this constant abrasion and decay makes the soil of my future growth. As I live now so shall I reap. If I grow pines and birches, my virgin mould will not sustain the oak; but pines and birches, or perchance, weeds and brambles, will constitute my second growth.”[5]

Thoreau reminds us we are constantly dying and resurrecting, building a fertile soil on which to cultivate our lives. But the sum of our lives becomes the soil of new life, the loam of future generations. Therefore, I do not think the resurrection is about what happens to me when I die. As soon as I think that the resurrection is about me I have missed the whole point of the gospel. The resurrection is not about me or what happens to me in the future. It is about the kind of life I have left behind for my children and the common good. Do I leave a rich virgin mould or sterile sand for their roots to sink themselves into?

When Mimi dies she wants to be cremated and her ashes sprinkled on the Rose Garden in Columbus. Human cremains are rich rose food. I delivered the memorial sermon for a man who wanted his ashes spread over the flowerbeds of Disney World in Orlando. He loved Disney World. It was the happiest place he had ever visited. The family wrote Disney World asking for permission but they refused. So, Susan and her kids packed Lou into small zip-lock bags and smuggled his ashes into the park. Discretely they sprinkled Lou amongst the poppies and peonies – a whole new meaning to “fairy dust.” The passing of one life is meant to prepare the soil for new and vigorous life.

I have had the privilege to lay to rest many wonderful souls who were members and friends of this and other churches. I cannot think of a single one of them who would want their spouse or partner, or children and friends to linger long over their grave. I know this is true for my mother and father. Rather, their hope for us is that we live out our lives preparing a rich loam for the future.

I do not mean to suggest that pain is not real or that loss is not sharply felt. I know that anguish and loss is ever more keenly present in the deaths of young children. I have learned that there is no “closure” in bereavement. There is only a lifelong process of reconciling loss with the expanding purpose of our lives. Mary Oliver offers insight into that long process in her poem, “Heavy.”

“That time

I thought I could not

go any closer to grief

without dying

I went closer,

and I did not die.

Surely God

had His hand in this,

as well as friends.

Still, I was bent,

and my laughter,

as the poet said

was nowhere to be found.

Then said my friend Daniel

(brave even among lions),

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –

books, bricks, grief –

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, carry it

when you cannot and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

Have you heard

the laughter

that comes, now and again,

0ut of my startled mouth?

How I linger

to admire, admire, admire

the things of this world

that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –

roses in the wind,

the sea geese on the steep waves

of love

to which there is no reply”[6]

What we can do – in time – is learn the balance of carrying the burden of grief. We can translate that pain into greater appreciation for the one’s we love, deeper empathy for others who suffer, and wisdom that sees the constant ebb and flow of life. Healthy grief will teach us that love, empathy, and wisdom carry the burdens of death. By all means we must grieve, we must celebrate, and we must remember. But we must also live on. We must lay the wreath and return to the hearth. Finis

[1] Willa Cather, My Antonia, edited by Charles Mignon with Kari Ronning (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), pp. 17-18.

[2] “The 121st Psalm,” The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 779.

[3] Ibid, p.748.

[4] The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, Walter Harding (New York: Dover Publications, 1982), p. 465.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), Vol. I, p. 19.

[6] Mary Oliver, “Heavy,” Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), pp. 53-54.