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Selected Presentations

Aspen Helsey (March 7, 2010)

Predicaments of Mortality

The Newsletter Blurb – for March 7, 2010

Aspen Heisey will lead us into the subject of death and the writing of Thomas Lynch, an award-winning poet and author, as well as an Undertaker. Inside his poetry and writing is an uncommon (and sometimes humorous) place to stand and look at this thoroughly human predicament of our mortality with consciousness and a sense of mystery. “I'm more interested in the meaning of funerals and the mourning that people do. It's not a retail experience. It's an existential one." Thomas Lynch.

The Sunday Service Committee asked me if I would put together a service about DEATH. It took me a while to figure out my angle on death – it’s a big topic, and probably not an easy one for some us. We have all had our own experiences with death; some more, some less; some in the distant past, some very recent. I want to acknowledge this might be the case AND I would like to invite a range of thoughts and feelings about it this morning.

I have come to appreciate this opportunity for a service topic -- for all of us to visit this potentially difficult territory. When do we get to do this, except for when there is a death in the family or a friend?! How healthy might this be to share a service together? – it wouldn’t have to be all doom and gloom, and singing dirges. Which brings me to the song we are going to sing….. Death Came A Knockin’( **lyrics at end).

When I was thinking what to talk about, there were many sub-topics under the main topic of Death -- the stages of death and dying, assisted suicide, how to die consciously, the stages of grief and mourning, funerals and memorials, alternative and earth-friendly burials, (and Rick, my husband’s favorite – being catapulted!). It would be interesting to explore the rituals various cultures and religions have around funerals or how they have changed over the years, or what we mean when we say “that was a good funeral or a good memorial.” Those would all be fascinating topics. (And London Green, my editor/coach, might say that in my first draft I tried to cover almost all of them. – he said, “what exactly are you trying to say? – what is your point?” (Thank you, London, for sending me back to the drawing board ….a member of our congregation and a retired drama/theatre professor.)
So what I narrowed it down to, is something slightly off to the side of those topics.


When I first wrote the above blurb for the newsletter, I thought it would mostly be about Thomas Lynch. I heard him use this phrase - a predicament of mortality – in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition program from November 4, 2007. That was a turning point in my life really, because he was putting into words things that, for me, were sleeping just under the surface. His sensibility as a Poet combined with his experience as an Undertaker awoke in me what has now become, almost an obsession.
It was just in time too, because as a new lay-chaplain, I had just gotten my first call from a Funeral Home – could I do a Memorial Service, 4 days from now?! I was entering new and uncharted and fast moving water and I needed some firm and grounding handholds.
Thomas Lynch was that for me – I listened to that interview over and over – I felt I was part of the conversation. I even typed it out verbatim so I could read and reread it. He stirred up memories and feelings long forgotten, awakening me to the fact that I had had my own experiences with the dead.

In the interview he says: “Everything we can do to mend, to make whole, to connect whatever dots we can existentially –that’s deeply human, deeply human. Do we always get it right? No.”
This morning’s talk is my attempt to connect some of these dots in my own life.

But first, what exactly is a predicament of mortality?

pre·dic·a·ment (dictionary meaning) - a difficult, unpleasant, or embarrassing situation from which there is no clear or easy way out.

So that is what a generic predicament is -
We tend to seek out the experts or the professionals when we have to deal with predicaments like taxes, surgery, accidents, crimes, investing, the legal system, etc.
But a predicament of mortality, in the most basic sense, would have to do with birth and death – the 2 experiences whereby we encounter what it means to be mortal:
to have life, or to not have life.

This morning’s service is mostly about how the dead are important to the living. It is through our encounters with the dead, that we, the living, have a unique opportunity to encounter our own mortality.

It was from Thomas Lynch, as I introduced earlier, an articulate Undertaker and Poet, that I came to see why and how the dead matter. He asks, “if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, or a nuisance and we hurry them away, what might we be missing out on?”

Because of what the newly dead can mean to the living, he says it is wise to treat them tenderly, carefully, and with honor.

In some places people still do Wakes for the dead – this gives the living a chance to encounter the predicament of mortality. It takes time for us, the living, to take in the new reality; that one of us, the living, has been subtracted.

Here is my own story as a 7 year old, and again at 21, how I came face to face with the newly departed – how thesepredicaments with actual dead bodies became my most poignant memories and shaped my experience of death.

My first encounter with death was when I was about 7 and my little brother, Nathan, was 2, and he drowned in the pond on our farm. That was October 11, 1966, in Gardners, Pennsylvania. My older brother was 8 and our little sister was 6 months old.
I was at my girlfriend’s house up the road. A call came that I needed to go home right away. The scene at the end of the lane stopped me from getting too close – there was my mother, and I guess the doctor, and perhaps a neighbor, all there, bent over and busily doing something….. it was CPR they were doing.
An unsuccessful attempt, as it turned out.
I was looking at my first dead body.

What my 8 year old brother remembers is being there at the edge of the scene too, holding his BB gun tightly, accidentally shooting himself in the foot with his gun. He said it hurt like crazy but he didn’t say anything.

When I asked my mother what she remembers: “I took him from the pond and carried him down to the end of the lane.” (Keep in mind this is a long lane.)
“I flagged down a car and asked them to get a doctor.
The doctor seemed to come fairly quickly.
We tried to give him artificial respiration. But he was gone.
They wanted to give me something to keep me calm but I wouldn’t take anything. I carried him up to the house in my arms. I wanted to carry him. They wanted me to get in the car and ride up the lane but I wouldn’t. The car drove up behind me. Up at the house, they kept asking – “who do you want for an Undertaker? I didn’t know! I couldn’t fathom anything happening until Orville came home.”
So my mother carried Nathan up the lane to the farmhouse, laid him on a blanket on the living room floor. It was a long evening.
Thinking about it now, it was this time with Nathan that made all the difference…. To be in our own house, in the middle of our living room where we played and had birthday parties, where we had Christmas, where we made forts, where we practiced the piano.
To see that he wasn’t getting up. To see that he wasn’t sleeping. This was serious.
There was now a gap between us the living siblings and our dead one, a gap we couldn’t grasp but at least there was time – time to take in a kind of sweet rawness about just being there, being in our own living room; just having time to take it in.
And when the undertaker came to take Nathan, and my mother cried desperately “– you can’t take him! you can’t have him!” (My father wasn’t back from his conference yet and she couldn’t fathom all of this happening without him there.)
They wrapped Nathan in a blanket and just before they took him away my mother said she gave us “the privilege of kissing him.”
So began my spiritual and cultural immersion with death.
How we love our dead. What we do with our dead.
How the community and larger family responds.
I watched as my parents moved through this territory.
They did not shield us. They didn’t think about shielding us.
The last time I saw Nathan was at the funeral. I distinctly recall my mother leading us up to the casket before it was closed for the last time, her leaning, and kissing the face of Nathan. Then, wanting my brother and I to do the same, wanting to, but not really wanting to, and doing it anyway.
I accepted that, and the way all of it was done.

A note I am adding November 2011, nearly 2 years after writing this original talk:

It strikes me now, after all the study I have done around how distant we are from death in our culture, how exceptional and important an act it was that my mother carried Nathan in her arms from the pond to the end of the lane, hoping to revive him. After he was pronounced dead, she wanted to carry him again…. up to the house, refusing well-intentioned help for her “predicament” – her instinct as a human being and as a mother was raw and primal… To hear her tell the story, her voice and tone has that quality of “Don’t you dare try to tell me, Mamma Bear, what to do. I don’t want any drugs to lessen my pain, and I will carry my own dead baby, thank you very much!”
There is something important about her being able TO DO this. We generally don’t know what to do in the face of death, in the face of such a predicament. For her to pick him up, feel in her arms the weight of her dead baby, she was fulfilling the instinctual, unconscious human need she had of her own body registering experientially the sensation, the reality and newness of the death… Only then did it begin to register in her bones, in her arm and leg muscles, in her spine, that her world has just changed, forever, and she would have to face it somehow.
When I first wrote my talk about death I did not even clue in on this subtlety but I get it now.

Now I will tell you another story, just told to me a few days ago when my bookkeeper asked me what I was writing about and, I told her “Death”.
Marion said “I have a story for you!” This is what Marion told me.

It was the mid-1950’s. Marion’s family was fairly Christian; the children knew who Jesus was. Marion, 7, was the oldest. Her younger sister, Barb, was 4. The very youngest was Geoffrey, 10 months old, born with a hole in his heart, and not doing well. Jeffrey ended up dying, but he died in the hospital without his siblings around him.
Marion remembers the phone call coming and learning of her little brother’s death and being sad. Her younger sister Barb, stomped her foot loudly, and in a very upset voice, said – "That's just great! Marion gets to go to birthday parties, Geoffrey gets to go and live with Jesus! I never get to go anywhere!!"

Then she told me this,
“We didn't get to go to the visitation or the funeral because my mother felt that it would be too upsetting for us to see adults crying. I was in my early 20's before I saw the picture of Geoffrey in his little casket, and could finally cry and grieve. I was able to talk to my mother and that was when she told me why she didn't let us go. She said that in retrospect she felt that she had been wrong. My sister spent a lot of time in her teenage years sitting at Geoff's gravesite.”
Now there was a certain kind of wound that lasted for years.
It struck me later how “lucky” my brother and I had been. We were not shielded from the predicament of Nathan’s dead body. We were there in the house with him, witnessed our mother’s anguish, we went to the viewing, the funeral, the gravesite. We had time to take it in, in our own way.

Fast forward to 1980, when my grandmother died in my arms.
I was in a completely different stage of my life encountering death, and in a very different manner.
I was 21 years old and spending 2 weeks living on my grandparent’s farm near Canton, Ohio, helping my Grandpa take care of my dying Grandma. The colon cancer was directing what was left of my Grandmother’s life and she had come home to die.
She soon stopped eating. She no longer talked to us. She was going thru the final stages of the slow folding up of someone’s life.
I brushed her long yellow-white hair and braided two long braids. Her ruddy high cheek-bones, blue eyes, and yellow braids made her look youthful - I marveled at her healthy countenance – the incongruity of that.

And then the end came.

Grandma was coughing and Grandpa and I hurried to be at hand in case we could help her. I was on one side of the bed leaning to hold her head and shoulders in my arms, my grandpa doing the same on the other side of the bed.
She choked a bit, struggled for air – the struggle seemed to last a long time, but I am sure it was less than minute, and then she was gone.

Grandpa broke down and cried.

I watched him fall a part, knowing there was nothing I could do for him or say to him. It was a moment like no other in my life. He finally looked at me.

I’ll never forget his face.

In that hush of the newly dead, himself just released from the long months of duty and care of the dying, there was sadness and grief beyond words, and yet a tinge of exhilaration.
After this time of awe and sacredness passed, we had a brand new predicament on our hands……The newly dead.

My grandpa knew what to do (being a rural preacher in those days meant he knew something about this kind of predicamenttoo) and to my amazement immediately went to work, tying a scarf around her head to make sure her mouth stayed closed, and tried to make sure her eyes stayed closed. I can’t remember quite how he accomplished this but I remember feeling uncomfortable. These were predicaments I had never thought about before.
We were now the living caring for the dead, no less important than the living caring for the dying.

And in the presence of her dying and death, I felt an awe of the mystery of death, and wanted to linger in the body and soul transition taking place, and take it in, feel it fully, before the undertakers came and helped our predicament, our helplessness. That was a life-deepening final gift my grandmother gave me.

With Nathan and my grandmother, I don’t really remember the funerals very much – the most poignant parts for me, were being there with the newly dead….. not rushing them off…

It is almost as if we have an aversion to seeing the dead. In the experience of Thomas Lynch, the Undertaker I mentioned, the dead become all important when we can’t get them home or we can’t find our dead. That creates a different kind of wound.

He tells a story of the mother of a dead girl who had been kidnapped, raped, and buried in a shallow grave out in the township and was found two seasons later and he said,
“I remember the mother saying to me –

“Are you going to tell me I can’t see my daughter now?”

….as everyone else had done for all of the best reasons –
they kept saying to her, No, you can’t – her father, her clergyman, everyone kept saying No, No, No – and I said to her,
“I wish there were some other way for you to know this,”
but I knew for my myself I would have had to see too,
and so all I could say to her was -
“I will be there when you want to do that.”
She was so grateful.
And not because of WHAT she saw, but because she DID see.
That is difficult to take in, I know.
She was trying to mend the wound….. trying to connect the dots.
To go the distance with her dead she felt she needed to go, however far.

My uncle Marion stepped fully into a predicament of mortality. (Incidentally, he is the son of my Grandmother in the previous story.)
His wife of 40-some years was dying of Parkinson’s. They had lived with this deteriorating disease for decades, and the last, say 5 years of her life, my uncle increasingly cared for her in every way, with lots of help from his daughters, some of whom were nurses. When my aunt Rachel was clearly approaching the end, everyone knew it would happen at home. My uncle is a Do-It-Yourself kind of man.
Not everyone would choose to take this on…( an aside - just so you don’t think this is too odd, my uncle Marion is a minister, a mental health therapist, and created and taught a graduate course entitled Counseling Issues In Death and Dying, so this territory was not that foreign to him). In his research for teaching the course, he had learned what he needed to know – he had interviewed at a mortuary – learned about the legal boundaries for the dead.
If you choose not to embalm, (and he clearly did not want that; Rachel’s decline left her weighing 70 some pounds - small and fragile.) By law, in New Mexico, you have to bury the dead in 24 hours, or refrigerate. So when she died, he would have to be prepared, in advance, for the predicament.

He purchased a nice-looking, inexpensive casket for his wife. He had the hole dug in the nearby cemetery.

All the children and the multitude of grandchildren came to the house to have their own funeral, immediately after Rachel died. The women, daughters and grand-daughters lovingly washed the body, dressed her for the last time, and finished with an ever-so-slight amount of make-up.

My uncle wrote this as part of his account of the story --

“We were all surprised at how long her body remained warm, even after death. Because of the threat of rigor mortis setting in, however, we did not know exactly how long we would have until the body would become stiff, so we worked rather rapidly to get the body washed, the hair set, the girls put on some rouge and a light coat of lipstick, to get her dressed and prepared in a way that we all would feel good about. "

“This all took about an hour. When we were finished, the men and boys came in, and all were surprised at how natural, how good, how well she looked. We all commented, she looked just as good or better than any mortician could have done.”

Once the body was fully prepared, they gathered around their wife, mother, and grandmother and said their farewells and sang the hymns. They recorded it and I got to watch some it. It moved me deeply….never seeing anything like it. Then the sons and grandsons carried the coffin to the cemetery for the burial.

Later that same week, there was a memorial service, standing room only, which I was privileged to attend.
Talking with my cousins afterward and my uncle, it was clear to me that by going that distance with their dead, they had an experience of a predicament of mortality that is vastly different than most. It is an example of how we do have more choice than we think we do sometimes.

Exactly how does a dead body matter? Is it partly because of the predicament that it presents?…. Maybe it is through pausing long enough with our dead, to recognize just how close we might be to the mystery of some of those bigger questions –

  • What is death?
  • What is life?
  • Where do we come from when we are born?
  • What happens when we die?

I also think we might feel helpless attending the moment of death, and the time just after death – and sometimes when we feel helpless, we rush things on through so we don’t have to feel the full impact of the predicament.
I’ll give the final words to Undertaker/Poet Thomas Lynch…

“The bodies of the newly dead are not debris nor remnant,

nor are they entirely icon or essence.
They are, rather, changelings, incubates,
hatchlings of a new reality
that bear our names and dates,
our image and likenesses.
It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honor.”

We are going to finish with some music for you to listen to.
After all that talk of death and dying, and predicaments,

I think we need a life-affirming song. 

We are going to listen to Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World”. 

So just sit back and enjoy this experience of being a human. 

by Louis Armstrong

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

Extinguish the Chalice --
We gathered to light this Chalice
We part the flame lit within us, an inspired community.

In our sharing circle after the service, I invite you back to talk about your own experiences …. As a child -- How did you encounter “predicaments of mortality” and how it has shaped you? Other thoughts to share….?


The Sunday Edition – November 4, 2007 - Michael Enwright interviews Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker from Milford, Michigan. Author of 3 volumes of poetry and 3 books of essays….

The Undertaking – Life Studies from the Dismal Trade - Thomas Lynch is an essayist, poet and funeral director of Lynch & Sons funeral home in Milford, Michigan. His most recent book, released this past June 2005, is "Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans".

Other more recent books include: "The Undertaking",  "Still Life in Milford" and "Bodies in Motion and at Rest" . He published his first volume of poetry, "Skating with Heather Grace" , in 1987.

Death Came A Knockin’ By Carlisle Floyd
Key of Bm (B-E-F#)

You know that Death came a knockin’ on * my mother's door
Singin' “Come on mother, ain't you * ready to go?”
And my mother stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the * Jordan stream
And she shout "Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin' shoes"

And Death came a knockin’ on * my sister's door
Singin' “Come on sister, ain't you * ready to go?”
And my sister stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the * Jordan stream
And she shout "Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin' shoes"
Hey - Hey

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