Life After Life: Part 1

February 17, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 17, 2013

“Life After Life; part 1”
Romans 14: 7-8

This week many around the world received ashes on their foreheads and heard again the harsh reminder;”From dust you made and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19).
Several years ago I received a call from Old Mission Mortuary. They were looking for an open-minded female minister to conduct a funeral. I told them they had the right preacher! I found out that the deceased was a woman who was married, had two children, and had died from breast cancer. Her name was Kala Su Ternes. She was 50.
I didn’t know Kala, but I learned a lot about life and death from her. When I met with her family, they came in carrying a large manila envelope of items Kala put together for her own funeral. In it were specific plans, information about the mortuary, the gravesite (I later found out that she walked through the cemetery, chose, and paid for her lot), and the funeral itself. She kept a journal as she lived and as she died, which the family gave to me. Kala also put together poems (some she had written and others she found), notes for each of her family members, favorite Bible verses, her philosophy about life, and her thoughts about death.
Now I’ve seen people plan for their deaths, but I have to tell you that this woman not only planned, she processed it – emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I want to share with you some of the things she put in the file:
At the front of her journal was this quote: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming – ‘WOW – what a ride!’”
And then she included in a letter to her husband this poem:
When time has stolen away our stars
And only the night endures,
Yet somewhere in the darkness, Love,
My hand will still seek yours.

When youth has danced its parting dance
And tasted its last sweet wine,
Yet somewhere in the silence, Love,
Your hand will still find mine.

As a minister, I have conducted literally hundreds of funerals and I have been privileged to be at countless bedsides as someone died. During those times, I have realized that the dying process is a sacred time for the individual and those around him/her. Marilyn Webb wrote a book entitled, “The Good Death”. The title was shocking to some but many of us know that there is such a thing as a good death.
Today and next week I will be speaking about death & dying – the theology of death and life as well as some practical applications for each person. I want to share with you some progressive ideas about what – if anything – happens as we die. And I don’t want it to be so heavy that you wish you had died instead of coming to church!
Theologically speaking, the transition from life can be as profound, intimate, and in some ways joyful as birth. We have Lamaze and many other kinds of programs to help parents who are expecting a child deliver that child into the world. Where are the programs to help families who are experiencing a death deliver that soul into whatever lies beyond life here?
It was 21 years ago this week that I put the body of my 16 year old sister in the ground. I was in seminary at the time. Let me tell you – when you bury a 16-year-old whom you loved with all your heart – you think long and hard about what death means. For me, the streets of gold and St. Peter at the gate simile didn’t work anymore. I had to find a theology that made sense and didn’t ask me to suspend logic in order to believe it.
Woody Allen said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That’s probably a sentiment we all share. It’s not so much the death itself – it’s our concern about pain, suffering, our families watching, or loosing our facilities – that bothers us. Part of the problem is that it is extremely difficult to know how to talk to someone about death. A lot of it has to do with the fact that most people are uncomfortable addressing the subject and are trying to make themselves feel better. And some people spend a lifetime trying to avoid talking about death. That’s one of the reasons I am your minister. No matter your age, your health or your questions, I am available to talk with you about your death.
I have files for each member and some of those files contain living wills, do not recessitate orders, funeral plans, and emergency contacts. Often in a time of crisis, when a family is making difficult decisions they forget things. If I have that information, I can be of help to your families. And it’s never too soon to start planning. I have my own funeral plans and medical decisions written out and copies given to various family members as well as the mortuary. When she found out that I had done this a few years ago, our daughter, Erin – who was 17 at the time – sat down and planned her own services. The process of doing this not only helps your family but also has an immediate result – you live differently when you plan for your death.
And so, I set out to find a theology of death and life that worked for my head as well as my heart. I will share some of these with you, trusting that one of more of them will resonate within your spirit and give you reason to live with hope.
Marcus Borg usually has something fascinating to say from a progressive theological viewpoint. He names himself “an agnostic about the afterlife”. What he says is this: “I am a committed Christian and a complete agnostic about the afterlife. I use ‘agnostic’ in its precise sense: one who does not know. I think that conventional Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife for many centuries is one of its negative features. I have often said that if I were to make a list of Christianity’s ten worst contributions to religion, it would be the emphasis on an afterlife.
What I do affirm about what happens after death is very simple: when we die, we do not die into nothingness, but we die into God. In the words of the apostle Paul, we live unto the Lord and we die unto the Lord. So whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For me, that is enough. My not knowing anything more does not bother me at all.”
Borg puts into words that which many Christians are afraid to say. The fact is that we don’t know what happens at our death. We haven’t done it yet and no one who has fully experienced it is around to tell us about it. Those who have had a so-called “life after death” experience can describe the memories they have of those moments suspended between life and what comes next… but they didn’t fully go on past those few moments. Even their stories as tantalizing as they may be are not the complete experience which we ache to know.
Elwin Shadowstrider, another progressive thinker, wrote: “Death isn’t the frightening “end” as we are taught by society; it is a beautiful event, one where we are able to again be who we really are, what our journey’s end has allowed us to become. Death is yet another gateway in our journey, the gateway that returns us all to the arms of God where we can reflect on what we learned from our sojourns in life.
Life will continue. It is a spiritual given; just look around you, the signs are all around you, they are all there. If a tree would know that its life was over in winter, the leaves wouldn’t just fall; the tree would fall with the leaves. The trees know that spring will come. Life will begin again. Even the animals know this, that after sleeping as if dead in hibernation, they awake in spring, with the life that flows through the entire world; they too know that Life doesn’t end in winter. So it is with us; our own deaths from this plane are merely a crossing the Veil into the place we truly belong. Death isn’t the end… it’s merely a beginning.”
One of the people I learned the most from was Kathie Bazzelle. Kathie was our child care provider (she didn’t like to be called a babysitter because she said she never once sat on a baby!). Each time someone in our family died, Kathie sat down to discuss it with our young children. “What do you remember most about Grandpa?” she asked.
“When he took us fishing!” one would say.
“When he pulled us in the wagon while he walked around the neighborhood”.
“The yummy fried shrimp he made!”
“His hat.”
“Those”, Kathie would say, “Those memories are the way he continues to live. Everytime you go fishing or pull your brother in the wagon, or taste fried shrimp; those are the ways he is resurrected in you. Put on his hat and take time to smell it. When a short, older gentleman walks by and you turn for a second look because you remember that smell – that is your grandpa – coming to you to give you a hug and tell you he loves you.”

This week, as your pastor and your friend, I challenge each of you to consider your death and your life. What would you like to be said about you when you die? Will you arrive at your grave saying, ‘WOW! What a ride!”? Ultimately, I hope that thinking about your death will bring you a stronger sense of what it means to live!

Resources Utilized:
Edson, Margaret. “W;t”. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. 1993.
Jenkins, Margie. “You Only Die Once; Preparing for the End of Life With Grace & Gusto”. Nashville: Integrity Publishers. 2002.
Kung, Hans and Jens, Walter. “Dying with Dignity”. New York: Continuum. 1995.
Trench, R.C. “Notes on the Parables of Our Lord”. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1980.
Webb, Marilyn. “The Good Death”. New York: Bantam Books. 1997. Elwin Shadowstrider “Beauty in Death”. 2010.

Bible References

  • Romans 14:7 - 8