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Doug McCleary: Celebrant, Officiant, Musician


Embrace The "Ugly" So Beauty Can Take It's Place

Posted by Doug McCleary on October 28, 2013 at 11:00 PM

While walking with my dogs today, this is what I was thinking about: We Americans have become so detached from death, it's a wonder we can move on at all.  We expect life to be about being "happy" and anything that challenges our happiness (like the subject and reality of death) is not welcome conversational material (imagine how much fun I am at parties).  But without facing death squarely and for "the end" it is, we can't heal or move forward.  Let me suggest that we must embrace the ugly reality of death before beauty can grow from the pain.

First, your loved one didn't "pass away" or "move on"...they "died."  Everything about them that made them "knowable"--their physical presence with which we could interact--is gone.  While they live on in our memory, the "actual" them is gone.  They "died."  When I officiate memorials and funerals, I intentionally use the words "died" and "death."  Because, while I know they are harsh and painful, they communicate the only reality that will allow us to grieve, heal and embrace life again: our loved one "died" "dead"...  What that means for life after death is anyone's guess--and world religions have provided plenty of speculation and revelation on what may await us after death.  But for us who remain, our loved on is "dead."  Say that ugly word...let it punch you in the gut.  And then find yourself able to heal and move forward.

Second, Grieve!  Yes, grieve.  Take time to remember and reflect and cry and laugh.  Grief is work.  Grief is work that takes time...that doesn't happen overnight.  Grieve, and don't let anyone tell you you shouldn't.  When my father died, I was pastoring a mid-sized church in a small town in Central Washington.  I was also trying to be present for him as much as possible, which meant driving to and from Portland most weekends after Sunday service (as well as many phone calls home, and attention diverted to Portland, to make sure he was OK).  He died the week of Thanksgiving and I "went home" to plan the funeral with my be with family and hold to one another at a painful time.  When I went back to my church the week after, one of the elders approached me and said "well, now that you've got that taken care of, you can actually start focusing on the church."  He was right on one hand--I had, sadly, neglected my ministry while dealing with my father's death.  But, he was wrong that "now this can happen."  Sadly, I did what he back into the swing of things and put my father's death "behind me."  I didn't grieve...and it took it's toll in ways I would never have expected.

"View" the body...witness a burial...scatter the ashes...  Don't flinch when the cemetery personnel show up in the dirt-covered work clothes.  There are moments, when officiating a service at graveside, that I am struck when the cemetery "guys" show up in their dirt-covered work clothes.  It's not a pretty sight.  They have, after all, been doing sad work just like what they are doing for you.  It's ugly (not "them" but what they are there to do), yet that ugliness is entirely appropriate considering why they are there (and again, cemetery guys, I don't mean that "you" are ugly...just that you represent the less-than-perfectly-groomed presentation of death that brings with it a glimpse of reality).

Don't have a "celebration of life"...have a "funeral."  Say that word.  Let it's uglines resonate around in your head for a couple of days.  Listen to how it puts us in touch with reality.  Use that word--whether it happens in a chapel or on a hillside or a backyard somewhere.  Have a funeral--acknowledge death and loss and pain...and also celebrate.  Remember with gladness and gratitude.  Have a well-written personal eulogy to celebrate all that your loved one meant to you.  But then acknowledge that he or she is gone.  Face death, embrace memory, and find strength to heal.

I was in college when my parents first called me to say they had mailed copies of their "will" documents for my sister and I to file and keep.  I was floored.  I did not want to talk about death...least of all my parent's inevitable deaths.  That's pretty standard operating procedure for someone in their early 20's.  But unfortately many of us continue with that mindset even when we are faced with the reality of death.  We don't really want to talk about's too painful to say "died"...we want promises of golden streets and pearly gates...we want, somehow, to avoid seeing and accepting the reality--the person we love has died!  The person we loved is gone from us in any way that means "relationship."  The person we loved is now--to us--a memory.

Death is ugly.  Death offends our sensibilities.  Death seems like an enemy to avoid and any and all costs.  But death is reality.  Death is the word that describes what will happen to each one of us, and everyone we know and love.  For all intents and purposes (as far as we "know" outside of what we "believe" and "hope") the person we knew and loved is "gone" forever, and some day we will be also.  Take some time to think on that.  Embrace it's ugliness, as painful as it may be.  Because once we accept the ugly truth, then we can begin intentionally creating lives worth being remembered...and we can openly explore the things that enrich and renew and bring meaning to our lives.

The death of a star created the atoms that eventually formed the elements, and formed you and me (because whether you believe in evolution or that we were formed from "the dirt of the earth" it's all star-stuff).  The death of species before us allowed us to arise.  The deaths of those who've gone before us ensure the world isn't overpopulated and we can have "our time" in the sun.  We, too, will die, and make room for generations to follow.  And those who knew and loved us will hurt and grieve and find healing with time.  And the cyle will continue.

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