Members of my community are at the age where they’re starting to die. It seems like every three months or so someone passes away. Some people I’m closer to than others, but regardless, each death leaves an impact.
Have you ever played that game where you stand in a circle and hold a piece of yarn while also throwing it to someone else in the circle? In the end, you wind up with a giant web that connects every person to everyone else. That’s what I think life is like. When someone dies, the metaphorical yarn is tugged and creates a ripple effect so everyone feels it, some more deeply than others. As for me, there are layers of grief. There’s the grief I feel from the person’s death, but there’s also the grief I feel for their family members, their friends, their colleagues. There’s up-close-and-personal grief and there’s also more removed grief.
In my spiritual community, we have a ceremony to honor the passing of people. It’s purely for the mourners, meaning we don’t believe the ceremony has any effect on the recently deceased person. One of the things we say in tandem is, “You have freed us today from all the social responsibility we bore toward our dearest so-and-so.” At one point we all pour water into our palms from the same pot and take a sip from our cupped hands. It’s the bookend to a baby naming ceremony.
With the baby naming ceremony, we are pledging responsibility to the baby symbolically by adding water into a tub, and with the mourning ceremony, we are taking it away. While the responsibilities are gone, the impact is not. Facebook is showing me pictures from a conference I used to go to in Vienna, Austria, every year. A few of those photos include Eric, a coworker who died years ago. It’s been many years since his passing, and we weren’t close, but every time I see his photo, my heart hurts a little, remembering he’s no longer with us.
I don’t have anything profound to say other than every person who is gone is not forgotten. We carry them with us in our hearts and they’re with us in another form. I’ll close here with an edited excerpt from writer and performer Aaron Freeman who in 2005 explained on NPR why you want a physicist to speak at your funeral:
“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral because they’ll explain to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind them about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. All your energy, every vibration, every BTU of heat, every wave of every particle that was you remains in this world. The physicist will tell your mourners that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you.
The physicist will them the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives. The physicist will explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. The physicist will let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely, the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable, and consistent across space and time. Your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”
I dream of a world where we remember every person’s death creates a ripple on the spider web of life. A world where we understand a person may be gone, but they aren’t forgotten. A world where we remember when a person dies, their energy is still around us, and not a bit of the person is gone, they’re just less orderly.
Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.