Sermon for All Souls Day (audio and text)


All Souls Day”

Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon

First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County


The are not gone who pass beyond the clasp of hand, out from the stone embrace. They are but come so close we need not grope with hands, nor look to see, nor try to catch the sound of feet.”


Thus wrote the poet Hugh Robert Orr, and we feel the dead still with us here today, here amongst these photographs and candles, but more than that, we feel the presence of the dead as close to us as our own hearts, if not even closer. If there is a gap, a vast gap, between the dead and the living, it is also true that at times we cross that gap as easily as the leaves fall from the tree. We cross that gap, and visit the dead, and they come to us.


I was in Rome a few weeks ago. We stopped off there on the way to the wedding of my brother, in Tuscany. I dearly, dearly wanted to go to Rome before I die, for all the reasons everyone always wants to go to Rome, the Eternal City, and most of all I wanted to go to Rome to walk amongst the spirits of the dead. On the streets I walked, the emperors and slaves of Ancient Rome walked, too, as did the early Christians and the pagans; Catullus and Michelangelo and Donatello and Keats and Shelley and Fellini had walked these streets, not together, maybe, but bound together by the links of genius.


As I walked past the ruins of the Old Forum I was walking upon layer after layer of the dead and the living. Death and decay had knocked down the mighty stones and then they had simply placed another layer on top. I sipped my espresso a hundred feet from the body of Augustus, in his day the most powerful person in the universe, today just another body, one of the countless many who lived and loved and died. On a wall I saw a crumbling mural from the fascist period of the 20th century, which boasted Italy’s fascist era would rule for 1,000 years. It was about 980 years short in its prediction.


Even death is a part of life in Rome. I carried in my mind a poem by CP Cavafy, about the ghosts of another city, Alexandria. According to legend, recounted in Plutarch, Marc Anthony, the friend of Julius Ceaser, lover of Cleopatra (not the more recent lover of Jennifer Lopez), was in Alexandria when he heard an invisible parade of people playing instruments, shouting and singing. Plutarch doesn’t say who these ghostly people were, except that it was a sign that Antonius was out of favor with his God. The poet Cavafy, though, calls this parade “the Alexandria that is leaving”. Marc Anthony is losing his city, the city that he loved, and he is seeing the ghosts of the city all around him, playing tambourine and cymbal, the city’s past in ringing in his ears. It was a bit like the poet Lou Reed sang about his city, in “Halloween Parade”: “The past keeps knock knock knocking on my door, and I don’t want to hear it any more.” Lou sings about seeing all the joyful faces of the parade, many that he recognizes, and it just makes him think of the faces aren’t there. His dear friends. This was in the late 80s, in Greenwich Village, the height of AIDS, a time of incredible sorrow, the death of a city. The city survived, of course, but it also died.


Oh so many ghosts that surround us in our sorrow. And in our joy, too. It is a curious and humbling thing to share the world with the dead. They are all around us, haunting our memory, there at the table when we sit down to eat, in our beds as we dream. Although death in its way is fully, terribly real, there is really no such thing as dead and gone. We human beings do not surrender our dead so easily as that.


An awareness of one’s own death and a keeping of the dead in memory are both essential to living a visionary life. If one does not see death, one does not see the whole picture. There is a tendency to deny death in our culture: on the one hand you have the extremes of religion, which claim that we should not grieve death, as death is merely a waystation on the way to better things, an elevator to the stars; and on the other hand, you have the extremes of advertising, that say we should always live, young, zestful, and forgetful of our grief. There is a truth to making the most of life, and there is a truth to the mystery of whatever follows death; but these two extremes would deny our full humanness, which happens when we are emotionally connected to the living and the dead.


There is a danger we might wallow in our grief, that our grief might be so strong it might close us off to life. But grief can also sharpen our focus, increase our resolve to live bold lives. I think about the famous greats of prior ages: almost all of them suffered some great loss, because before the 20th century death, and early death at that, was commonplace. To lose a child to death, or a spouse, or a sibling, was more the rule than the exception.


And yet the heart, the great, raging human heart, did not accept that it should be so. When Emerson’s little son died his world was forever changed. He wrote in his journal:


…I woke at 3 o’clock, & every cock in every barnyard was shrilling with the most unnecessary noise. The sun went up the morning sky with all his light, but the landscape was dishonored by this loss. For this boy in whose remembrance I have both slept & awaked so oft, decorated for the morning star, & the evening cloud, how much more all the particulars of daily economy; for he had touched with his lively curiosity every trivial fact & circumstance in the household, the hard coal & the soft coal which I put into my stove, the wood of which he brought his little quota for Grandmother’s fire, the hammer, the pincers, & file, he was so eager to use;  the microscope, the magnet, the little globe, & every trinket & instrument in the study; the loads of gravel on the meadow, the nests in the henhouse and many & many a little visit to the doghouse and to the barn.-For every thing he had his own name & way of thinking, his own pronunciation & manner. And every word came mended from that tongue. A boy of early wisdom, of a grave & even majestic deportment, of a perfect gentleness.”


Everything was changed, the very world was tinged with grief – “the landscape was dishonored by this loss”. Emerson, one of the great meaning-makers of our time, made no meaning in the depth of this sorrow: “I comprehend nothing of this fact but its bitterness” he wrote. He further wrote, Sorrow makes us all children again, – destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest knows nothing.”


What do we really know about death? We know our sorrow, first and foremost. We know that something is gone that will never return. And we know that something remains with us, always.



Emerson, who had buried his first wife a decade before, went to the funeral of his son Waldo and then returned home and wrote a poem on the immortality of the soul. The poem does not deny the reality of grief. It begins:


The South-wind brings

Life, sunshine and desire,

And on every mount and meadow

Breathes aromatic fire;

But over the dead he has no power,

The lost, the lost, he cannot restore;

And, looking over the hills,

I mourn
The darling

who shall not return.”


He begins with what is lost, he writes about his grief for stanza after stanza, and then writes this:


what is excellent, as God lives, is permanent;

hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain;

Hearts’ love will meet thee again.”


Hearts are dust, but hearts’ loves remain. All of the forms that love and life takes will go to ground; that includes us. And beyond the forms, is the love eternal, that time and death cannot reach.


The Mexican families who have celebrated the Day of the Dead for generations know that the dead are always with us; they come to us in mystery and love, they come in our sorrow and they are ever present in our joy. They have picnics in the cemetery because the cemetary is a place of life, as well as death. All things are connected. All souls Day – all the souls of the world are connected, and death cannot change this fact.


It was my first night in Rome, I had only been in that old, old city a few hours when I heard the procession. I was sitting with my family at a pizza restaurant when the sound of a brass band came by the little alleyway beside us, and with it a group of people, old women, priests, each person carrying a candle. They were singing hymns, in a language I did not know. And in the middle of the procession, they were carrying an altar with a picture of the Madonna. A candlelit procession for the Virgin Mary.


There were tears in many eyes, and I am sure Mary was not the only person they were thinking of. It did not matter. All was connected: a woman who lived two thousand years ago, a loved one who died last Tuesday. All was sacred, all celebrated by a few horns and some candles in the magic of the night.


I witnessed it, and I knew it to be holy. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of all those I had loved and lost, and thought also of the amount of love in the world. Love for Mary, love for so many women and men I’ll never know. The city of Rome was walking by me, and all those ghosts were all around me, and they remind me that the love is here still, and always will be. May your memory be a blessing to you, and when you forget it all, as we all do, may you dissolve into love.


Blessed be, AMEN

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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