All Souls Day: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Gravestone, Peacham, Vermont.

Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.

— Martin Brokenleg [i]

We pray for the dead, believing that, as they are drawn nearer to God, they are enabled to grow in the knowledge and understanding of God, in the service of God, and in the joy and fulfillment of God’s renewing love. We do not pray for the dead as those without hope, but trusting that the faithfulness of God will bring them to the completion and bliss for which every human soul was created. 

— Jon Hart Olson [ii]     


 

On All Souls Day (November 2), we call the dead to mind with stories, mementos, photographs, and rituals. In some ways, the dead never leave us. We still use the language they invented, live in the houses they built, learn from their wisdom, pay for their sins. And we carry their DNA inside our bodies. Bill Holm, a Minnesota poet, has noted the strong resemblances between his own living and dead:

When Jona at sixty traveled 
to her father’s farm in Iceland, 
the relatives looked down
at bony knuckles, veins
popping up, said: “See!
She has the Josephson hands
even after a hundred years…”

Now, when I bellow at parties, 
or look down at my own hands;
knuckles growing, veins
rising as I age, I think:
I’ll be living with all 
these dead people inside me.
How will I ever feed them?
They taught me, dragging carcasses
a thousand winters across
the tundra inside their own bodies. [iii]

“How will I ever feed them?” We certainly contain and nurture the legacy of the dead in our culture, in our very bodies, but is there any form of continuing relation with the dead as discrete entities who remain other than ourselves? Do the dead still exist somewhere, and can we still be in relation with them? In both the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the hero descends to the underworld to speak with the dead and get their advice. However eerie, it was a sensible quest. The dead have “been there, done that.” They possess the voice of experience. Robert Pogue Harrison explains what Homer and Virgil were up to when they put words in the mouths of the shades in Hades: “We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld—address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” [iv]

As a person of faith, I believe this continuing presence to be more than the lingering effects of the departed on our bodies and our psyches. The communion of the living and the dead possesses an ontological dimension. The afterlife has an existence, a reality, outside our imagination. And it is not only in the past. It is part of our present, and our future. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger divine wholeness—“all the company of heaven”— from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this “communion of saints,” cannot be broken, even by death.

Such radical sense of interdependence, where we all, as John Donne put it, “lie open to one another,” may not come naturally to people who value privacy and individuality and have the means to live without others. Among the world’s poor, however, survival depends on mutuality. People pool and share their resources, with no illusions that they can make it on their own. Community and family are absolutely necessary, and this solidarity is not broken by death. 

In her study of Mexico’s Días de los muertos, Juanita Garciagodoy writes that the poor do not regard the self as “atomistic, independent of the social body that constitutes its extended family and community. The physical body is not the private property of its owner with the array of rights to privacy and individualism and the independence from relations, friends, and neighbors the body of the typical “first worlder” claims. People are felt to be connected radically.” This connectedness includes the departed, as the Days of the Dead make clear. “Those people’s spirits are still part of the unit of the living. There is no question about their desert to be humored, fed, entertained, and regaled on dates of remembrance. Those who live with this understanding know that no one is an island.” [v]  

Dead or alive, we’re all in this together. The Mexican calaveras, cartoonish depictions of skeletons performing the activities of the living, make this point with comedic verve. I once saw a woodcut of three skeletons in festive dress, arms around each other, smiling and waving as they looked me in the eye. Below them, like a postcard greeting, were the words, Wish you were here!  

Gravestone, St. Peter’s churchyard, Lewes, Delaware.

My father died when I was 21. One of my best friends died when we were 30. But for the most part, death kept its distance in my younger days. Lately, however, the losses have begun to mount. The pandemic, tragically, has taken vast multitudes—“a huge number, impossible to count.”[vi] And on a personal level, the vanishing of loved ones grows way too frequent now that I’ve reached a certain age. In the past few years, I’ve addressed personal loss in my writing, and in honor of All Souls, my Day of the Dead “altar” will be a brief florilegium—flowers for the dead, if you will— from four of my requiem posts. 

When two of my most beloved elders, Joe and Phyllis Golowka, died within weeks of each other, I wrote (and preached) “You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

Bill Fisher, born five days earlier than I, was a close friend for 59 years. In his final days, after he slipped into unconsciousness, I gave him last rites, and his earthly companions sang him to rest. In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend, describes what happened next.

I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise 

Another friend was taken suddenly early this year. In “When I begin the long work of rising”—A Tribute to David Fetcho, I quote one of his songs:

I want to go with you
to the other side of the light
where we’ll see
what the shadow reveals
will be such a relief …
time in its disguises 
won’t fool us anymore …

Days tumble on with minds of their own
they breathe in our lives, and make them their own
and time, time disappears
like the wind from a sail …
and every good day will be 
just another good day
of eternal life. [vii]

Anise Stevens, my sister’s child, left us far too soon at age 49. She died in the first minute of dawn on New Year’s Day, 2019. Through my tears, I preached “Trailing clouds of glory” at her requiem.

In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me before the funeral that her daughter is “on her way.” Then she recited Wordsworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall one day return:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 
Hath had elsewhere its setting 
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness, 
And not in utter nakedness, 
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
From God, who is our home. [viii]

The author lays California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth in St. Oswald’s churchyard, Grasmere, England (July 16, 1994).

I have always found Wordsworth’s hopeful and exuberant spirit an inspiration, so much so that I marked my fiftieth birthday with a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave. After nine miles of rambling through the Arcadian charms of English countryside, I arrived at dusk. I had brought along my copy of The Prelude, with two wildflowers from home, an orange California poppy and a pink Farewell-to-Spring, pressed within its pages. As a quarter moon set over the darkening hills beyond St. Oswald’s churchyard, I took out the flowers and laid them on the grassy grave. Then, in the fading light of a summer evening, I spoke the lines which epitomize my own trust in the providence and grace of the human journey:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide 
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again! [ix]



[i] Martin Brokenleg, “Mitakuya owasin: You are all my relatives,” in The Witness, Vol. 76, No. 11 (Nov. 1993), p. 8. Brokenleg is an Episcopal priest and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

[ii] Jon Hart Olson, newsletter of Christ Church, OntarIo, CA (Nov. 1994). Jon was an Episcopal priest, colleague, mentor and friend.

[iii] Bill Holm, “Genealogy,” in The Dead Get By with Everything (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991) 14.

[iv] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 150-1.

[v] Juanita Garciagodoy, Digging the Days of the Dead (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 269.

[vi] Revelation 7:9, from the liturgical readings for All Saints Day.

[vii] David Fetcho, “Just Another Good Day.” You can listen to the song here: https://soundcloud.com/ds_feco/just-another-good-day

[viii] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”

[ix] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, I.14-18. Wordsworth’s image is a happy reversal of Milton’s melancholy account of the Expulsion from Paradise, where the first humans’ outward journey has dimmer prospects: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (Paradise Lost, 646-649).

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