Monday, October 17, 2005

The UU-FAQ VI: Death

Do UU’s believe in an afterlife?

Some do and some don’t. Many (probably most) believe that the living cannot know for sure whether or not the dead survive in some way. And, if the dead do live on, it is even more doubtful how behavior in this life affects a person’s afterlife. Consequently, even though individual UU’s may believe in Heaven and/or Hell, in reincarnation, in spiritualism, or some other version of a conscious afterlife, UU's hardly ever use posthumous reward or punishment to motivate behavior in this life.

A UU funeral must be a very sad event, if the mourners have no common vision of an afterlife.

Most mourning has little to do with theology. Even if you believe that your loved one is sitting at the right hand of God now, you’re still going to miss having him or her around. And if the death was painful or premature or unusually tragic, the community still has to work through its shock and loss.

Religion sometimes gets in the way of the grieving process. A dogmatic religion may care more about rationalizing difficult points of its theology than helping survivors come to terms with their loss. (What parent, for example, is really comforted by the thought that their child’s death was God’s will?) The death of a loved one can lead people to doubt their faith, so a religion that equates doubt with sin increases rather than eases their burden. And if the image of a loved one in Heaven is comforting, the possibility that he or she may be in Hell is anything but.

A bereaved UU can benefit from our lack of theological baggage. A typical UU funeral celebrates the life that has ended. People are free to be happy or sad as the spirit moves them, and to do or say or visualize whatever will help them find peace and continue on the journey of their own lives.

In short, a UU funeral is no sadder than any other kind of funeral, and may be less so.

Are UU’s afraid of death?

In the face of death, UU’s demonstrate the full human range of fear and courage, just as the members of any other religion do.

What does Unitarian Universalism have to say to someone who is afraid of dying?

Since death is both natural and inevitable, those who die have not been picked out for misfortune. A debilitating fear of death, however, is not inevitable. Many people arrive at a state from which they can accept death without horror and live in its shadow without fear.

They do this in one of two ways. The popular culture provides a clear image of the first way: The dying person is at an advanced age and largely without pain, surrounded by loved ones. Quarrels are resolved, good-byes are said, and the positive legacy of the person’s good works are apparent to all.

Obviously, this picture depends on many factors beyond an individual’s control. Anyone, no matter how careful or healthy, may die prematurely or painfully. Loved ones may already be dead themselves, or they may refuse to cooperate with our good-death scenario. And no matter how hard we try, the goals we set for ourselves in life may not be achieved. We may reach death believing that we leave behind a mess for others to clean up rather than a bounty for them to enjoy.

But there is another way to die well: You can approach death with compassion, both for yourself and for others. On this path, the end of life is a time for cancelling debts and letting people off the hook – yourself not the least. High standards and harsh judgments may have served an important purpose during your life (to push yourself to improve, for example, or to discourage others from treating you badly). But these purposes become less and less relevant as death approaches. Those who have wronged you in the past will not do so after you are dead, and your own failings and bad habits will die with you. So what is the point of continuing to punish yourself or others? Why not, at long last, open yourself to acceptance and love?

This second path to a good death is open to everyone. It doesn’t require that your disease proceed in a particular way or that your friends and family follow your script. But a lifetime of hard-hearted condemnation can difficult to reverse, especially if you try to begin practicing compassion on your deathbed. If, on the other hand, you have spent your life asserting the inherent worth and dignity of all people (including yourself), and championing justice, equity and compassion in human relationships, then the second path is much easier. If you have been on a free and responsible search for truth during your life, death will not hit you with the added force of all your repressed doubts.

In short, when consistently practiced and taken to heart, the UU Principles do a good job of preparing a person to face death and die well.

1 comment:

The Emerson Avenger said...

Here is what is one of the most ancient and most spectacular cosmic symbols of death and rebirth or resurrection.