Dia de Muertos Sunday Service talk by Don Barker
It’s the season of Halloween and Dia de Muertos, And here we are to talk about death.
How do we talk about our own death?
How can I get up the nerve to talk about my own death?
When I was growing up, the way to talk about death was to not talk about it. Now you would think that since I grew up as a Mormon, that I could look Death square in the eye and talk to it. Because Mormons have death – and everything else – totally figured out. But we didn’t talk about Death at home. In fact, when my grandmother died – my father’s mother – he did not travel back to Utah for her funeral. He arranged it, because he was the oldest son, but he stayed away. It’s because, although my dad was a Mormon bishop, he was never a True Believer.
But I was a True Believer. At least I believed I was. That’s why I accepted the call from God to serve as a Mormon mission in the world’s most Catholic country. That’s not Italy or Spain – that’s Colombia. My first missionary companion was Elder Rice. (I never knew his first name. We called each other “Elder” even though we were just 19 years old. If you’ve seen the Broadway play, The Book of Mormon, you understand why.)
Elder Rice and I were living and proselyting in a small town on the road between the capital city, Bogota, and the salt mining town of Zipaquira, high in the Andes. Ten hours a day knocking on doors, standing on street corners, handing out copies of El Libro de Mormon, and meeting in the homes of any Catholics who maybe could no longer talk about Death the way they used to, and instead wanted to talk about Death the way Mormons talk about Death.
One evening, Elder Rice and I were back in our rented room doing our nightly scripture study. I happened to be reading out loud the final chapters of The Book of Mormon. Now, if you read The Book of Mormon, you might call it The Book of Little Big Horn. Because in these final chapters, the curtain comes down on the 1000-year drama of Christians in pre-Columbian America. It’s a drama of good vs evil, black vs white – literally – the white, civilized Christians, called Nephites, pitted against the non-believers whom God made dark precisely because of their non-belief. Now 2000 years later, we all know who came out on top in this struggle. Because it was the dark non-believers who were the only ones to greet Columbus when he arrived in 1492.
But in these final chapters, there were still a few white Nephites left, and it was not looking very good for them.
I read out loud to Elder Rice: “The Nephites began to cry unto the Lord, for no man could keep that which was his own, for the thieves, and the robbers, and the murderers, and the magic art, and the witchcraft which was in the land. [This was Existential Halloween for the Nephites.] … But they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die.”
I turned to Elder Rice and said, “How awesome is that!” Elder Rice looked at me with some surprise.
I said, “Death was staring these Nephites in the face. They did not flinch. They spit in Death’s face and threw up their middle finger. How bold is that!”
“Elder Barker,” he said, “You need to pray more.”
Maybe I didn’t pray enough. Because I discovered a decade later that, like my father, I also was not a True Believer. Like many of you, I couldn’t hold onto the stories I had been taught to believe about Life and Death. Those words I had rehearsed in my mind for that moment when Death would finally stare me in the face? I could no longer rehearse them.
But neither could I just pretend there was nothing at all to say to Death. So I read and watched and listened to how others talk about Death and prepare to face Death. And I came to UUFE to learn about Death from you.
I read about Hindu and Buddhist practices. At one extreme were the ascetics who slept with Death. I mean, all night in the cemetery. Not just like Spring Hill Cemetery with headstones. This was in the charnel ground, where the bodies of the dead are left out to be picked apart by vultures and hyenas, and the bones scattered about.
Well, I may need a way to look at Death and talk more about Death more honestly, but not that way.
But I was still not satisfied with the Western way of ignoring death or making light of it. I was still the morose ex-Mormon when Rita and I were living in Philadelphia several years ago. A new restaurant opened up in the neighborhood. It’s called La Calaca Feliz – The Happy Skeleton. I wondered, How can these people take Death so lightly?
And later, we visited our grandchildren in Chicago. Families in the neighborhood where they live go to great lengths to decorate their yards and porches for Halloween. Not just with smiling pumpkins and black cats, but with very realistic settings of skulls and bones scattered about in the grass – the look and feel of the charnel ground. Grandma and I pushed the baby carriage through the neighborhood, and I thought, How ironic, that these neighbors embrace their children, families – and Death – in both arms.
So, maybe I’ve been dismissing Halloween as a true death sacrament – a way that we Westerners look Death straight in the eye. Not lifting the finger but laughing ironically.
Now, as part of this sermon about how to talk about Death, I guess I should prescribe something. And we will add some notes to our sermon on the UUFE website and in the weekly email, with links to resources about how to talk more about death.
Like Death Cafe, where small groups get together to eat cake, drink tea, and engage in frank conversation about our own deaths. I think there’s a Death Cafe running out of the Annapolis UU congregation.
And there’s a thing called The Conversation Project. It was described in the most recent issue of UU World magazine. The website encourages us to keep up a conversation with our children and other family members about how we want to face our own death. And it provides resources for how to do that.
And finally, Rita gave me a prescription last night. She took me to Avalon Theater. The place was packed with Baby Boomers, and we were rocking the place.
And we were singing,
Bye bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry…
And we were signing…
This will be the day that I die.
Kind of like those Book of Mormon Nephites. But with less anger, a lot more singing, and a little more irony. Keeping it light. May it always be so.