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  • Karl Thunemann

Responding to Death

By Mary Strachan Scriver

People carelessly throw around “religion” without thinking about what they mean. Lumped together are individual life-changing deep experience as well as the cynical political maneuvering between and among institutions. No distinction between nuns at devotion in a quiet room or naked indigenous people with drums pounding in a circle.

If they are sophisticated enough to think about it, they might propose that religion is a person’s or a society’s frame of meaning, what they think life is really all about. On the other hand they often just assume a “religion” is the same as a Christian denomination with a bill of particulars about what they “believe.” Even the UU’s do that.

Death. That’s the keynote right now. Some resist and some succumb, but it’s hard to ignore when every night more than 1 in 500 Americans die. No one really knows the death rate in some countries. The planetary demographics are changing.

I’m trying to get to the absolute bottom of what is sacred/holy by researching what an fMRI tells us and what the cumulative evolution of creatures explains and any of the other things — the many hominin remains we’re discovering or what rocks tell us about planetary magnetism.

But I’m missing a big gap: human relationships, esp. the ones that are organized into types and chains of transmission and proximity. I don’t mean the pursuit of relatives that satisfies so many people, or even the historical currents that have swept them through time and place, but the many small formal and informal ties and recognitions among us. Not culture, but what forms underlie culture. Not just the particular ecosystem but what people do together in it that has been shaped by it.

Some of this is missing. Sometimes they were mocked, like debutante Eastern Star proms, or other times they got absorbed into somebody else’s culture, or sometimes the people who were tied together by war so tightly they would die for each other just age out.

I’m told I’m now an “elderly orphan”. (This is not me.)

Also they get absorbed into generic formulas that speak vaguely of something big and indescribable that they are reluctant to name, like Alcoholic Anonymous or Inaugurations. Everything is assigned a binary conflict and there’s no room for anyone else. Or the busybodies organize everyone into “generations” that dominate entertainment and marketing.

Or it becomes a matter of money: can you afford to be so virtuous? Will you get rich if you don’t please God? And those who believe in ornamentation, certain jewelry, or icons like candles and teddy bears or little statues. They work; to some extent they are at least a signal to others.

“Religion” changes according to the culture whether not this is technically true of the institutions.- They’ll hang on to the old rules as long as they can because by those rules they won. But that’s because they are counting on the idea that their ways were revealed by some enormous force in the sky who will be upset if disregarded. In fact, the holy/the sacred comes out of the ecosystem and bubbles up in behavior and imagination irresistibly, the way a dandelion pushes aside cement sidewalks. It slips into the world without people really defining it. Until one day racism seems really stupid, a drag on the system.

Of course, it does this on two levels: one is that of the individual or small group that has a brainstorm or organizes an event that makes the new thing plain, and the other is the group, the biggest extent possible of community, something true of all the species, so strong it defines the differences among the hominin species. Like group singing — whatever it’s like — or gathering at night.

The Three Abrahamic “religions” all insist on two things: a major human-like ruler and the defiance of death. Well, Judaism, not so much. Christians provide a two-in-one idea, the human who is partly divine and rises from the dead. They just don’t accept his rules.

Death. That’s the keynote right now. Some resist and some succumb, but it’s hard to ignore when every night more than 1 in 500 Americans die. No one really knows the death rate in some countries. The planetary demographics are changing.

We are letting people die because they are poor. We are digging up dead baby bodies to prove they exist. We are renting refrigerator trucks because we keep the bodies until — what? NCI, buried, entombed, cremated, sent home? I live near two churches, one Southern Baptist and one Lutheran. Quiet gatherings in both. We grieve by coming together. Sometimes there is no one to attend. I’ve been asked by funeral directors to come “read” over dead people who had no one else. We have to invent what to do, sometimes even what to say.

I’m taking an “organic” approach to human social structures: how we fit together, how we pass practices along, whom we feel we belong to. It comes down to capacity versus motivation. What CAN we do? How badly do we want to do it?

And I reach back to my concepts of attachment and arousal, which both refer to what’s under these forces. They are biological, physical, cellular, organic. They don’t drop out of the sky in the beak of a bird. Both attachment and arousal are present in animals, even birds. This Aeon essay is being read and quoted.

The internet and social media are changing everything. On the one hand we tenderly mark the deaths of our beloved pets. On the other hand we watch the frantic struggle to save human lives with tubes and plastic protections, swarming over people to turn them, holding their hands since the people who are emotionally attached can’t come in the space, which is running out anyway. We thought this sort of thing only happened in Africa to people with Ebola.

We are as though under glass, seeing but not feeling. What “religious” assumptions can we make? We can’t wall ourselves off from the world. We MUST participate. We are continuous, connected to it all, even after our deaths. To make it personal, I don’t know where the ashes of my brothers are. It doesn’t matter, though there are religions that would claim I should find them, maybe to make their deaths real in my mind. We were all three with my mother when she died and know where her ashes are, unless the cemetery is dispersed to make way for housing. But it’s our connections that persist and they still do.

Mary Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, Montana.


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