Hey, I had to go to a church recently. I was doing some childcare for a relative, and it was on a Sunday. Kids of a certain age lead an orderly life. Included in the order of the lives of the kids for whom I was providing some childcare was their regular Sunday morning visit to a Unitarian church in Seattle. Being a dutiful relative, I agreed to keep the child to the child’s orderly life and attend a Unitarian church service with the child.
And I had a pretty good time. It seems I like church a lot.
Turns out even though I stopped going to church 28 years ago, and even though I attended an Anglican church during the years I attended church, I still had all the rhythms of church hardwired in me. I may not have known the specifics of the creed or the words to the hymns and the prayers, but I felt like I knew all the gestures and the sentiments. I knew when to stand and when to sit. The Unitarian service’s language seemed a little strange to me—it was 19th century, and felt American, and seemed weirdly concerned with architecture—but everything else clicked into place pretty easily.
Best of all, though, it gave me an opportunity to sit and really think about death. I mostly don’t really write anymore. I mostly just sit and think about death. I mostly try to sleep and can’t sleep because I start to think about death and then find I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about death. And I mostly feel weird about lying in bed thinking about death because it doesn’t seem like the right place to be thinking about death, so I don’t sleep. I should be trying to sleep. I should be trying to clear my mind. I fight to clear my mind. I fight to clear out thoughts of death. And I fail and fail and fail.
Churches, as I’m sure you are already aware, are all about death! They don’t ask you to clear your mind of all thought of death.
And the church didn’t just give me a place to think quietly about death. It was a place to think about it actively and in a participatory way. It gave me plenty of cues telling me that I was in a place where thinking about death was encouraged. I found myself thinking about death in the proper setting. The right context. It was fantastic.
Many of the seats in the church have little plaques on them. The plaques say that the seats were “given” to the church in honor of someone. And that someone is dead!
Many of the books in the church have bookplates in them. And the bookplates say that the books were “given” to the church in honor of someone. And that someone is dead, too!
The programs they give you when you enter the nave to find a seat are filled with the names of the dead. The songs sung in a church are slow and quiet and mention death a lot. There are moments in a church service when everyone is asked to sit quietly, and during those moments, you can hear little creaking noises and breaths and coughs. Human bodies are filled with gas, and after death they make creaking and sighing noises. And the “death rattle” is a sort of choking cough people near death make when their throats fill up with saliva they can’t swallow because they are dying and all their energy is going to that instead of to swallowing.
And, of course, a church was just lousy with older people who are really close to their own deaths. They’re the ones making most of the noises in the moments of quiet reflection. Because their bodies are getting away from them. Because getting older is just the our bodies getting away from us. Until finally, we can’t stop our bodies from getting so far away from us, they cease to function entirely. Try as we might to stop it from happening, our bodies just give up. Think about that next time you are unable to keep from coughing. Your brain fights and fights, but you cough, because you can’t will your body to stop. You’re going to die someday, and it might be like that. Your mind might be sharp or it might be dulled with medication or decay, but it might still try to will your body to keep going, but your body won’t have you telling it what to do. It will just stop working.
Thinking about that in church felt far less menacing to me than it does when I’m in bed, and the person next to me is asleep. And I’m not asleep, but I’m trying to sleep, and instead I’m worrying about death.
I like church a lot.
Have a good weekend, everyone.