The Blessing of the Dead
by Rev. Cynthia A. Snavely
January 26, 2014
At least six Unitarian Universalist congregations here in the United States are named All Souls; one in New York City; one in Washington, DC; one in Kansas City, Missouri; one in Brownsville, Texas; one in New London, Connecticut; and one in Indianapolis, Indiana. For the Western Christian community November 2, the day after All Saints’, is All Souls’ Day. For the Catholic Church it is a day to pray for the dead who have not yet reached heaven. For Unitarian Universalist congregations who have chosen it as their name it is not about praying people into heaven but about making a claim as to whom we belong. It is a universalist claim. We belong to all. The homepage of the Kansas City All Souls declares, “Whatever the faiths you have known…Whatever the flags of your heritage…Whoever you are and whomever you love….Whether you ran in on little feet or walked in briskly or ambled in or rolled in…You are welcome here.”
Whom then shall we claim as our ancestors? When my congregation, Goodloe Memorial bought our building ten years ago, one of our members bought us a poster of historic Unitarian Universalist figures and framed it to post on one of our walls. It was up a very short time before someone perusing it said, “There are no people of color on this poster.” It came down. It was not an adequate representation of our ancestors. Thanks to some help from one of our young adults we remade the poster and hung the new version back on our wall. We also tried to find the makers of the original poster. Several years later we found them and sent them our version with a note saying we hoped they would expand their version. We would like a wider representation of our ancestors to be honored by all Unitarian Universalists not just those who come into Goodloe’s walls.
Who do you claim as your ancestors? My daughter has at least two family trees. She has the one that goes through me as her legal mother, and she has the one that goes through her birth mother and father. She can claim a Pennsylvania German heritage and an African American heritage. But she also has a foster mother between her birth mother and me, a woman who raised her for five years of her life. Perhaps out of respect for Mommy Olga, my daughter could also claim a Bolivian family tree. And now my daughter is married. Does she now also claim her husband’s tree as part of hers? Perhaps so. I know they keep an urn with some of her husband’s father’s ashes in their home. So many lines, so many ancestors.
Who do I claim as my ancestors? Both of my great-grandfathers on my mother’s side claimed to be part Native American, but my family tree doesn’t show any real evidence of that, and I know nothing of any native culture I could claim through them. I grew up with a fading Pennsylvania German culture. My maternal grandparents could speak Pennsylvania Dutch, but my mother could not. My grandparents spoke it only when they didn’t want my mother and aunts to know what they were talking about. The church I grew up in had old men who would ask to sing a hymn in the Dutch at a Sunday night service and would then sing a hymn in high German, but we didn’t sing in German on Sunday morning. A few of my ancestors I can trace back to Germany or to Switzerland, but I remember a conversation with my paternal grandmother. I was in the eighth grade and for extra credit in social studies we could do a family tree. Grandma told me names back a couple generations and then said, “They came from the old country.” A couple times I then asked, “Which country, Grandma?” To which each time, my grandmother answered with a little more frustration in her voice, “the old country.” I know now what I did not know then, that the lines of nations moved and that there were, indeed are, some within nations whom the nations themselves do not claim.
Sometimes whom a country claims changes. My friend, Don’s birthday was in October and so on a Sunday that month we went out to the movies together. We saw “12 Years a Slave.” The movie is based on the experience of a real person. Solomon Northrup, the movie’s protagonist, published his account of his experience in 1853, but I had never heard of him before. A reviewer of the movie noted that for the first time a movie was showing the history of American slavery from a slave’s point of view. The people claimed as our American forebears in my childhood American history texts in the 1960s and 1970s were almost all white men. I hope that is not true in the texts being used by American children today.
Some of you know that this past summer ago I had the opportunity to lead a service for the re-interment of bones that had been dug up several years ago in the Bowie area at Clagett’s Landing. When the bones were first unearthed as the land was being tested for a possible housing development, the police were called with the thought that this was a crime scene. When the bones reached the police forensic unit the age of the bones was realized. They had been unearthed not from a crime scene but from an old unmarked cemetery. The bones of the disinterred person were sent to the Smithsonian who studied them for several years before returning them to the gravesite. As part of the re-interment ceremony I said in part,
“It is both amazing how much we know of this man and stunning how little we know. He was an African American male. He smoked a clay pipe. Did he grow his own tobacco? Did he buy it? He had a diet high in protein. Did he fish? Did he hunt? Did he trap? Did he raise some chickens? Did he go in with some neighbors to buy a hog? Did he live his life as a free man or a slave or both in different parts of his life?
“Is he buried here next to a spouse? Did he bury his parents here? Is there a child lying here who died before her father? In his lifetime did he come here to place flowers on some loved one’s grave?
“What was this man’s name?
“We do not know this man, but he walked this ground before us. He is one of the ancestors of this place. And as we live here now, he is our ancestor.”
Who are our ancestors? Unitarian Universalists who came before us? Those who birthed, raised and/or adopted us and their ancestors? Americans who came before us? Those who lived in the same area as we live now before us? All of the above and more?
In the 1970s and 80s a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers formed a group called the Congregation of Abraxas http://www.cres.org/pubs/abraxas.htm. They created a communion liturgy based on the Christian. In it these words are said at the sharing of the bread, “We are all one body,” and these words at the sharing of the wine, “We are all blood kin.” http://www.cres.org/pubs/AbraxasEd.htm. I would say that that suggests that we claim all homo sapiens as our ancestors, but recently I have learned that may not be broad enough. Ann Gibbons, author of The First Human wrote in an article titled, “The Neanderthal in My Family Tree” that “in May 2010, … researchers were able to get enough nuclear DNA from three female Neanderthals who lived in a cave in Croatia 38,000 to 44,000 years ago to splice together and publish the first draft of a Neanderthal genome. When they compared that draft genome with DNA from modern humans in Europe, Asia, and Africa, paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues found that modern Europeans and Asians—but not Africans—have inherited between 1 percent and 4 percent of their genes from Neanderthals.” Gibbons also notes that, “Although only three fossils of Denisovans (another ancient species) have been found so far (the finger bone and two molars in the same cave), the girl belonged to a group that left its mark on living people today in Southeast Asia. In follow-up studies, researchers identified people who had inherited about 3 percent of their DNA from the Denisovans, as well as 4 percent to 6 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals. These people are found in a patchwork quilt of populations on islands of Southeast Asia, including Melanesians in Papua New Guinea, aboriginals in Australia, and Negritos in the Philippines.” But perhaps even these ancestors are not enough for are we not related to all life?
Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Weston wrote this,
“Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space.
“Out of the stars have we come, up from time. Out of the stars have we come.
“Time out of time before time in the vastness of space, earth spun to orbit the sun, Earth with the thunder of mountains newborn, the boiling of seas.
“Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight; This is our home; Out of the stars have we come.
“Mystery hidden in mystery, back through all time; Mystery rising from rocks in the storm and the sea.
“Out of the stars, rising from rocks and the sea, kindled by sunlight on earth, arose life.
“Ponder this thing in your heart, life up from sea: Eyes to behold, throats to sing, mates to love.
“Life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain, life from within, giving birth, rose to love.
“This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love.
“This is the marvel of life, rising to see and to know; Out of your heart, cry wonder: sing that we live.”
“I stooped to the silent earth and lifted a handful of her dust….Listen to the dust in this hand: Who is trying to speak to us?” James Oppenheim