The World of Grief Is Different than We Thought

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 26, 2013

Genesis 35:16-20; Micah 1:8: Romans 8:22 CEB

If you were to take a drive to my home community this afternoon, about midway between the towns of Greeneville and Jonesborough, you would find the community cemetery freshly decorated with all kinds of cut flowers.  For, you see, today—the fourth Sunday of May—is Decoration Day.  Those of you grew up in a rural community and church near a cemetery may be familiar with the practice as well.  When I was a boy, Decoration Day was a big affair.  Practically everyone in the community put on their Sunday best, and early in the afternoon congregated in the cemetery near family plots.  And there you stood around talking to friends, neighbors, and family members, some you hadn’t seen since last year’s Decoration Sunday.  And it didn’t matter how hot the sun was, and how much you were sweating, you wore that white shirt, and bowtie or necktie, and suit.  If you were lucky, eventually your family would decide to take refuge under the shade of one of the big oak trees.  Decoration Sunday, you see, was on one level a social event; one of the major social events of the year.  I have known some community cemeteries where they had Sunday dinner right there on the grounds of the cemetery.

But on another level, Decoration Sunday was a time to reminisce and remember loved ones gone on.  As we stood over the graves and admired the beautiful flowers everyone had brought, we told stories of Aunt Bessie and Grandpa Bill.  We talked about the “good ole days.”  And every once in a while, there would be some misty eyes, as we remembered loved ones no longer with us.

Though they vary from culture to culture, most people of the world have some kind of mourning rituals and ways of remembering their dead.  I thought I would share some of these mourning rituals with you.  For instance, ancient Egyptians believed that many aspects of this life are carried over into the afterlife, so Pharaohs were buried with their personal possessions, tools they might need in the afterlife, a “Book of the Dead” that gave instructions they would need for the afterlife, and sometimes their servants were buried with them!  Not much fun for the servants!

Some cultures have burned their dead on funeral pyres.

The ancient Vikings believed that to die in battle guaranteed eternal happiness, so they often celebrated when they lost one of their comrades in battle.

Some Jewish groups call for a simple burial as soon as possible after the person has died.  Shiva, or seven days of mourning after death, is a time when the community essentially mourns together, and friends and neighbors bring food for the mourning family.  At the cemetery, family members and friends shovel dirt on top of the casket using the backside or bottom of the shovel.  Some Orthodox Jewish groups do not allow taking flowers to the grave.

Native American mourning practices are many and varied, depending upon the tribe.  The Dakota painted the face of the deceased red, believing red was the “color of life.”  If an Ojibwa child died, his or her hair was cut and made into a doll, called a “doll of sorrow,” which the mother of the deceased carried with her for a year.  The Navajo never completely closed the coffin to allow the spirit to be released.  Some Choctaw never mention the name of the deceased, believing that if they do they will call the deceased back and make his spirit restless.  Southwest Hopi wailed on the day when someone died.  Then a year later, mourners wailed again.

In some cultures, family and friends have a wake and stay up during the night and watch over the body of the deceased and honor them while they are celebrating.  As I said, mourning rituals are many and varied.

But mourning over the dead is even more universal than the human practices I have shared.  In April, TIME magazine carried an article on grief and mourning that caught my eye.  I was quite surprised by what I learned.  It talked about grieving mothers who carry their dead babies with them long after they have died.  What is surprising about this is the fact that the grieving mothers noted in this article happen to be bonobo and baboon mothers.  The article also noted that elephants may attend the body of a dead herd mate for a week after its death.  Elephants also reverently examine elephant bones they find in their travels.  Crows flock to a dead flock mate, studying it closely.  They may cover it with grass or bring twigs as a form of tribute.  We all know that dogs mourn the loss of their masters.  One dog in Japan went to a train station looking for its owner every day for ten years.  Cats have been known to revisit places in the house where a deceased companion used to be found.  Their grieving may be accompanied by a distinct cry.  Even rabbits may experience grief.  In one case, a rabbit spent a week going through the house, seemingly looking for a departed friend.  Speaking from a personal standpoint, while growing up on a farm, I often witnessed the grief or mourning of a cow crying for a calf that died at or soon after birth.

Now, when I read that article, it got me to thinking about how grieving and mourning in the world is much broader than I had ever imagined.  Grief or mourning practices seems to be a universal phenomenon.   Such led me to those two scripture verses that I read to you.  “I will cry out like the jackals, and mourn like the ostriches,” the prophet Micah proclaimed.  Micah was lamenting destruction that he foresaw coming upon his people.  Was Micah cognizant of the fact that animals actually mourn?  And Paul spoke of the “whole creation [that] is groaning.”  I don’t think Paul had in mind animals that mourn over losing their dead comrades.  But the verse would appear to have much more meaning than Paul realized or could have ever envisioned.  For now we know that creation does groan and mourn.

Now, if there is grieving or mourning in creation at large, what are the ramifications of this? There appears to be a much greater similarity or commonality between humans and the rest of the animal world than we might have imagined a few decades ago.  We may have more in common than we might have realized.  If animals do indeed grieve or mourn, perhaps we need to treat them differently than we have in the past.  Such knowledge might instill within us a greater sense of love and concern and compassion—what Albert Schweitzer termed “Reverence for Life”—for the animal world.  The animal world is not distinct from us; they are part of us, and we are part of them.

Grieving or mourning reveals or brings to light our ability to connect with one another, be it with humans or pets.  It seems that a funeral or memorial service is the time when we connect the most.

Grieving or mourning (as Paul points out) is an acknowledgment that we live in a broken world; but more importantly, that none of us is self-sufficient.  We need each other, and this truth is brought home to us most when we are mourning the loss of a loved one.

And so, when we lose someone or some pet close to us, we grieve, we mourn.  But the good news is we can also remember with love and fondness and appreciation.  Thus, we have Memorial Day.

And finally, one other lesson we can learn from mourning is to determine to use each day wisely, showing our love for those close to us, while we have them.  Amen.

Cited: “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” Time, April 15, 2013.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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