On a lovely October day, I sit by the fire at my father-in-law’s favorite campsite in the Cascades near Leavenworth, Wash. I hear his delighted laugh on seeing the pile of puffball mushrooms his grandchildren have picked for supper. I imagine his easy contentment watching the water sparkle around the bends of Icicle Creek. When the late afternoon sun glows golden in the leaves, it seems like a bright farewell, both painful and precious. It is the first anniversary of Robert’s death.
Grief involves a lot of confusion, and American attitudes towards death and loss aren’t always helpful. We may feel devastated, but after the initial sympathy, if we have trouble functioning, people start feeling uncomfortable around us. Sometimes they even pressure us to “get on with our lives.” When the pain does start to ease and we catch ourselves feeling happy, we are stabbed by guilt, or more confusing still, we punish ourselves for not feeling guilty. It’s difficult to accept this mix of feelings as a natural process when we are trying to balance between what we expect of ourselves and what we think others expect of us. To live whole lives, we need to integrate loss and love, remembrance and letting go, and we need support to do it.
Around the world, many communities join together to honor those who have passed with annual holidays. All Souls’ Day and the Japanese Bon Festival are prominent examples, as well as Mexico’s Day of the Dead. All of these holidays acknowledge the dead and honor them, through prayer,
family reunions, tending gravesites or celebrating memories with story, song and feasting. Regardless of the particular traditions, these holidays offer ways to incorporate personal struggles into a broader community experience. We can learn from these traditions and find ways to remember our dead together and support one another.
The Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, inspired by the Mexican holiday, has held a Day of the Dead service for the last nine years. Unitarian Universalism is a faith with many faces, influenced by the diverse heritage and beliefs of its members. One of our principles is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which means that when we encounter a belief, practice or idea that resonates for us and has relevance to our lives, we have an obligation to learn all we can about it and approach it respectfully and reverently. We have been guided by words from Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley: “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”
In Mexico, families visit graves and decorate them, often spending the night making music and telling stories. They lay out special tables at home, covered with favorite foods and mementos of the dead. By welcoming the dead to join the festivities each year, they make them part of their lives and recognize death as part of living. Inspired by this challenge to our American notions about death, and wishing to give voice to our beloved dead, at JUUF we invite the deceased to join us, invoking their presence through the sharing of stories. We make room for sorrow. We find laughter. We welcome the dead. We give each other a safe space for pain to be expressed, as well as the comforting shelter of being held in community. We also joyfully celebrate our community, both living and dead.
What we learn from the Day of the Dead is that we can continue our relationships with our beloved dead. True, we cannot share new experiences with them, but for as long as we remember them, we can find new wisdom in what they’ve left behind for us. As we grow, what we learn from our memories of the dead changes. The stories of their lives become part of the stories of our lives, and in us, the dead can live again. We can learn to live with both gratitude and grief, and know that our community will share the journey with us.
If you care to join us, we meet this Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Temple Sukkat Shalom on Cordova St. For directions, see our website at www.juuf.org.
• Rachel Zahnd is a lay leader and board member at the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.