A few years ago, while living in Macon, I participated in a memorial service, on sacred Native American ground, with a Wiccan Priestess named Queen Myrtle, a friend whose chosen Hindu name is Sulata, and an adolescent who had not yet settled on any convenient labels. Late one evening, with a wink and a nod from a friend who worked there, we snuck into the Ocmulgee National Monument Park carrying a small urn containing the ashes of Lakshmi, who was the long-time canine companion of Sulata.
We climbed to the top of the Great Temple Mound overlooking a nearby funeral mound on one side, and the river, 90 feet below, on another side. We know only some the significance that this area had to the People that lived there for more than 12,000 years. But this evening, in the dwindling twilight, we gathered our small group to memorialize a loved one and to scatter her ashes. While I had occasionally cared for Lakshmi when Sulata was out of town, I was not a member of their pack, and was mainly there to support Sulata in her grief.
As difficult as grieving and consoling can be, they offer clear insight into how precious life is – to the blessing that we receive from others, whether they have two legs or four legs. We view deaths differently, as to what the person meant to us, as to how close they were, as to how they died. It is more tragic when a young boy is hit by a drunk driver, than when an elderly person slips away while sleeping. News organizations in this country have reported more than 350 Americans that have died in Iraq this year, but rarely do we hear about the Iraqi civilians, at least 7,700, that have died because they lived in the wrong place.
As a practical matter, we cannot grieve every death as we would the death of a close loved one, but we can learn from death and our reactions to death, to show us what is important. The occasion of another’s death can help us reflect on how we live our lives. On the Great Temple Mound that evening, we found a common way to honor life and provide some way to move the grieving process forward. Queen Myrtle did not officiate, but she quietly nurtured the sacred space. The usually talkative youth was serenely respectful. I could do little other than to be present. Sulata wept.
All that were at this simple ceremony were Unitarian Universalists, all with different beliefs about death and the afterlife. As a practicing Buddhist, I am occasionally asked if I believe in reincarnation. I have not resolved that question, and usually answer that I see karma working on a minute by minute basis, and my practice would be no different if karma also operates from life to reincarnation. Unresolved or differing beliefs about death do not lessen the common value we place on life.
In honoring and memorializing life, we express a common sense of transcendence, whether it is a rebirth, an afterlife, or that a person lives on in our memory of them.
Sulata and Lakshmi had shared unconditional love for more than a dozen years. I cannot imaging being more alive in the moment, surrounded by love, than I was that evening on the mound, remembering and honoring life and love.