Sermon: Honoring Our Ancestors: The Stories We Tell

2022 December 9

Meagan Henry, Director of Education and Family Ministry

Oct 30, 2022

“What happens when we die?” This is a question I get asked by young children more often than you might think. It makes sense that they ask me this. In my role as Director of Education and Family Ministry here at First U, I make sure our children know they can talk to me and ask me anything. Because I’ve built that relationship with them and I don’t want to break their trust, of course I must answer them. It can be a little scary to talk about death, and especially with children – especially other people’s children.

There is a temptation to avoid answering this kind of hard question by turning it around to them and saying, “what do you believe?” I experienced that a lot when I was a kid growing up in UU communities, as did many others of my generation. There was a time when UU adults did not want to tell children what they believed because they were afraid those children would be indoctrinated by their words and therefore would miss the opportunity to think for themselves and make up their own minds about what they believed. We UUs have a strong commitment to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning – our 4th Principle.

As much as I do want children to make up their own minds and have beliefs of their own, it’s also true that at certain ages and developmental stages, children really and truly just want to hear what adults think and believe, and if we don’t answer them, we are doing them a disservice and missing an important opportunity to build a relationship with them. When a child asks you one of those big life questions, it’s an honor because it means they truly want to hear what you think. Telling a child what you think does not make them think the same as you, but it does show them one way of thinking about things. It gives them options.

So what do I say when a child asks me, “what happens when we die?” The depth of my answer depends on the age of the child, but generally speaking, my answer is something like this: This is one of life’s great mysteries. I don’t actually know what happens when we die. One thing I do know for certain is that we live on through people’s memories of us, even after our bodies are gone. The things that we do during our lifetime are the things that people will remember about us. Why do you ask? And then we get to what lies behind the question and because I answered the question, we are able to go into a deeper conversation. I often ask them if they have memories of anyone who has died, and if they do, we talk about those memories.

What happens when we die is far from a childish question and it is something many of us think about, or try not to think about most of our lives. It’s especially present for us as we age and come closer to death ourselves and when someone close to us dies. I recently had someone in my life die suddenly and tragically. I’m not ready to preach about that just yet, but of course the experience is present with me as I’ve been writing and preparing for this service. My own recent and ongoing experience of the heartbreaking death of someone with whom I had a complicated relationship only reinforces for me how important it is to share our memories of our loved one.

Naturally, when someone dies, we think of our fondest memories of them and tell funny and heartfelt stories about things they did in their lifetime. It is a precious gift to gather with others and share memories of someone who has died because you get to hear about pieces of the person’s life that had nothing to do with you. These memories build a more full picture of who they were and they come to life in a whole new way. Many were robbed of this gift of gathering in remembrance during Covid quarantine, and we’ve learned through that experience just how important this kind of ceremonial gathering is.

If you are thinking of someone from your life who died, who you remember,  someone who played a role in forming who you are, what stories do you tell of this person, either out loud to others, or quietly to yourself? How are they living through you and the life you live? I encourage you to tell as full a story as possible. Not just the good and funny stories. People are not perfect, as we know. We all make mistakes and hopefully we learn and grow from those mistakes. There are probably ancestors of yours far back in your family history, or more recently part of your life who made big mistakes that impacted you. Regardless, their choices and actions are also a part of who they were. Perhaps you can, or have learned, from their mistakes so that you do not repeat them, and that, too, is a gift.

For this Remembrance Sunday, we have small tables at each of our candle lighting stations. These are our Remembrance Altars where you may put photos or mementos of deceased loved ones and some of you have already placed objects on these altars at the beginning of the service. If you have not had a chance to do so, you may come forward during this hymn. There are also pieces of paper and pens if you would like to write the name of a loved one and leave it on the altar. Those of you in our online space may type names in the chat and comments sections. 

Let us now sing together What Wondrous Love hymn #18

Many scholars and theologians say that religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and carrying the weight of the knowledge that we will die. As eloquently stated by F. Forrester Church, “Unitarian Universalism might best be described as a life affirming, rather than death defying faith. Yet to affirm life, we must also face death, and struggle to make sense of both.”

As the earth turns and the days grow shorter, we are reminded of death. For a long time, human beings have believed that as the earth transitions from the liveliness of summer to the death of winter, the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. This is when people all over the Northern Hemisphere believe the spirits of the dead are closest to the world of the living. Maybe this is partly why Fall feels sad to many of us. It is a time of reflective nostalgia. We remember when we were young and how it felt to be going back to school, leaves crunching under our feet on cool afternoons, the feeling of being cozy inside while it’s rainy and blustery outside.

Holidays recognizing this proximity of life and death have been celebrated in many different ways and in many traditions. We think that the practice of wearing costumes originated in Ireland during Celtic festivals celebrating the holiday of Samhain (Sah-win) marking the beginning of Winter. The idea was that by wearing a costume, one could trick the spirits of the dead who came through that thin veil and roamed the earth between October 31st and November 1st. 

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor All Saints. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain (Sah-win), and the evening before became known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.

In Nepal, Gai Jatra is a celebration to commemorate the death of people during the previous year that lasts for eight days. Also called the Festival of the Cows, it includes a procession of cows through the center of town, led by family members who have lost a loved one. Cows have a sacred status in Hinduism and are believed by some to help guide the recently deceased to the afterlife. The festival is a light-hearted celebration and is meant to help people accept death and ease the passing of loved ones.

Celebrated for over 500 years in Japan, the Bon Festival was established to commemorate deceased ancestors. Lasting over three days, this blended Buddhist and Confucian tradition is not a solemn celebration, and in fact it often includes feasts with fireworks, games and dances, including a special dance performed to welcome the spirits of the dead.

Día de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead, is observed on November 1st and 2nd. Widely celebrated in Mexico, the holiday originates from an Aztec harvest celebration dedicated to the goddess, known in the English translation as the Lady of the Dead. During these lively celebrations, families and friends gather and pray for those who have died. Believing that mourning or signs of sadness would offend the departed, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of the life of those who died. The day includes food and drink, and participating in activities that the dead enjoyed in life.

This week, I will visit with some of our First Unitarian beloved ancestors at our congregational plot, Vista Hill, in Green-Wood Cemetery. This is a ritual I do each year at the end of October / beginning of November. I say hello to Augustus Graham whose purchase of this land where we now worship enabled our founders to build this beautiful building, Reverend Farley the long time minister here from 1842 to 1863, Seth Faison, Ari Sr. and Olive Hoogenboom, resting together now. I visit with Madeline Bergquist, and Reverend Orlando Brugnola and Reverend Hope Johnson, both of whom are pictured on our wall of clergy behind you, Mary and Larry Calia, Reverend Paul Ratzlaff – beloved husband of Barbara Ratzlaff, and many others. I love wandering the grounds of the cemetery and often find myself there when I need to spend some quiet time in nature. Like many of you, I walked in Green-Wood often in the Spring of 2020. Then, the only sounds were of birds chirping and the never ending  ambulance sirens, coming from all directions.

We often hear the saying, “time heals all wounds.” But grief doesn’t work on a timeline. It isn’t linear. We learn to live with it, by necessity, but it often resurfaces unannounced. It comes in the form of a song, a familiar phrase or saying, a birthday or an anniversary or a holiday, in social media memories that pop up on our devices. It is ok if these memories make us sad … or happy … or angry. Be with your feelings and know it’s ok and you will have different feelings at different times.

May we remember our ancestors, those who we are related to by family and those who’ve influenced us and are part of our chosen family. To remember our ancestors means to honor who they really were; their full selves, not just the parts of them we knew. It means to choose to be aware that who we are now was influenced by them, and that how we choose to live now will influence those who come after us. To remember our ancestors means to know that even though they have died, in our hearts and minds they are present, at every time of year. We carry them with us in our memories of them. We keep them alive in the memories of others, too, through the stories we tell.


Let us pray.

Spirit of life and love,

May we remember and honor our ancestors through the stories we tell about their lives and through the lives we live. Help us to discern the ways we honor them through telling their stories. May we embrace their fully lives to the extent that we can and may we be blessed by their continued presence in our lives.

May it be so. Blessed Be.

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