Speaking for the Dead

Last month my paternal grandfather, my Papa Jerry, passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 90, aided by the comforting care of hospice. He began showing signs of heart failure several years ago (swelling in the legs, shortness of breath, difficulty with exertion), but the risks had been present for many years: he had a pacemaker placed several years before, he had many years of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a distant history of tobacco use and a family history of heart disease on his father’s side. For most of his long and accomplished life he enjoyed good health, and went to work every morning at the scaffolding company that he ran for over 50 years until just a few months before his death. He is survived by four children, including my father, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by my grandmother, Edith, by over 10 years (who I never had the chance to meet, sadly). May their memory be a blessing.

Other diseases that run in the family include cancer (especially leukemia, which Jerry received treatment for twice in his life), as well as some mental illness and suicide among his older sister’s descendants. Luckily, there are several genetic diseases that are very common among Ashkenazi Jews (Jerry was 100% Ashkenazi based on Ancestry DNA results obtained before his death) that we do not suffer from, or even carry as far as I know (e.g. Gaucher’s disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, Familial Dysautonomia and Spinal Muscular Atrophy).

Even though his death was as peaceful and painless as we could have hoped for, for me it was especially hard because instead of knowing him all my life I only knew him for 9 years, after my father introduced me to the rest of my family from whom my existence had been kept a secret. Now, I know many of you have heard this story before, but let’s let the newcomers among us in on the juicy bits, shall we? I was a lovechild from an amorous tryst between a young-pretty-Mormon-babysitter and a sexy-newly-divorced-Jewish single father of two young boys. Needless to say, it could never work, and so, for reasons I don’t yet fully understand, my existence was kept from my older brothers and my little sister, born later after my Dad remarried, and most of my extended family on my Dad’s side. The secret persisted for 25 years, and it was finally revealed at the insistence of my Dad’s late wife, an amazing woman named Patty, who passed away shortly afterwards of ALS during the prime of her life, whose dying wish was that we be reunited and reconciled at last.

*deep breath* See! Juicy, right?

After my Dad brought me back into the family they all welcomed me with open arms, especially my Grandpa Jerry. I love each of them and have developed a unique relationship with each of them. At the same time, I admit it is often difficult for me to understand my siblings and cousins who grew up in prosperity and relative ease while I grew up in poverty with a young single mother and had to struggle to reach my dreams. *In my best Tevia voice* I’m not really complaining, but just a year before being reunited, while I was working nights as a hospice nurse to support my wife and young son and pay tuition while taking a full course load trying to get into medical school, all of my extended family were travelling to the Holy Land, first class, touring it top to bottom. Yeah, I admit, I am a little bit jealous about that! Further risking the bitter and jealous labels here, this was not the last time I was excluded, either, but several members of my family have gone the extra mile to make sure I am included and really tried to understand me and where I’ve come from. I am so incredibly grateful to them.

We never spoke of it, but I know that my grandparents knew of my existence. I will always wonder why they withheld their love, but I know that Jerry did his best during those 9 years we had together to welcome me home, to show me how proud he was of me and my family and to write us in to his legacy. I am proud to bear his DNA, his memory (if not his name) and to say that during my transformation through the trough of my faith crisis, I gradually found something to believe in and will try to share it with you. Here it is: If we use the tools we have, atone for our mistakes and strive to treat people fairly, we can become the beings we have always projected and revered, even worshiped. *Tevia voice* Sounds crazy, no? But let me see if I can fiddle on this roof.

 I will never forget how, one night before she died, Patty (my father’s late wife) painstakingly spelled out on a letter board with her big toe (her last movable appendage) “God did not want me home until we made this right.” Of course no one lives forever (many, like Patty, live much less than Jerry’s 90 years), but death has often felt like an thief to me: natural, yes, even a relief in many cases I have personally attended, first as a hospice nurse and later as a physician, but ultimately a monster robbing the world of a unique soul, never to be seen again. The hope that we will continue to find treatments and cures for the diseases that afflict humankind, maybe even death itself, continues to inspire me, professionally and spiritually. I humbly accept that overcoming death may not be possible, but I do believe we will continue to make people healthier and their lives longer by continuing to try.

Despite the best that modern medicine had to offer, Papa Jerry died early on a Tuesday morning, and as is customary in the Jewish tradition, he was buried shortly thereafter on the morning of Thursday, July 4th, with military honors (He was a veteran of the Korean War), in Phoenix AZ, giving the family a day or so to gather in the Valley of the Sun for the service. Traditionally the burial should be held no more than one day after death, as there are strong taboos in Jewish culture and religion around the handling of dead bodies, but our family has been a part of the Reform Judaism movement since it took root in the US in the latter half of the last century. Reform Judaism seeks to strike a balance between the old traditions and the lived experience of Jews in modern times.

The Rabbi who officiated, Mari Chernow of Temple Chai, is one of the most powerful clerics I have ever met. Her words were a beautiful mixture of the ancient rituals (such as Keriah, the tearing of the garment), prayers (such as the Mourner’s Kaddish), wisdom around death and mourning and the power of healing and hope that come from leaning on one’s community for support in times of grief. As they say, *Tevia voice* “There is a tradition for everything!” For instance, take the ritual of “Sitting Shiva” (shiva being the Hebrew word for seven, a holy number) where the immediate family remains at home sitting low to the ground for seven days in mourning and abstaining from work such as cooking and grooming (mirrors are usually covered during this week).  It is customary for friends and relatives to visit daily during the week, to allow the family to grieve with them, share memories of the deceased and to bring them food. Today marks a similar day of mourning in the Jewish calendar:Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, a day of fasting to mourn the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples in Jerusalem. So, if you have Jewish friends, don’t wish them a “Happy Tisha B’Av” as they’re probably fasting and will probably scowl at you!

For the funeral, my brother’s family and our family stayed together in a house-share while in Phoenix which happened to belong to  another Jewish family (there is a Mezuzah, or marker, on their doorpost which gave them away), who graciously offered to bring us food when we told them what had brought us there, even though they did not know us. Many of you will recognize elements of these traditions and see parallels in your own varied religious or secular backgrounds. Death and grief are no stranger to any of us, and certain best practices seem to come naturally in such universal human experiences. These rituals connected me to my grandfather and all my Jewish ancestors, several of whom are buried in the same small Jewish cemetery and who we honored that day by placing small stones on their graves.

I have long sought this connection, having been raised apart and only recently was reunited under similarly bittersweet circumstances. As I mentioned earlier today and also 4 years ago, when I first spoke here about my path out of the Mormon Church, my upbringing was difficult, but for many years Mormonism and a belief in the American dream kept me going, helped me succeed (I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I’m an all-right-looking cis-het white guy), and having a crisis of faith (which only now I can see as a spiritual awakening) made me realize my own white male privilege, and caused me first to doubt and then to lose my faith altogether in God, America and the patriarchy.  I felt lost and unsure what type of future I would want to work for, but luckily I held on to some of the spiritual practices I had come to value, especially going to church every week.

One of the other forms of spiritual practice I took with me after leaving Mormonism is family history work, or genealogy, and once I had the chance I began researching my Jewish heritage by interviewing my Grandfather Jerry and other family members, and using tools like Ancestry.com and the LDS Family History Library. It has been a very rewarding effort and by using the best tools in my reach, and spending many hours, I’ve been able to learn much about our family that had been lost to memory, such as the town our ancestors emigrated from in modern Ukraine, near the border with Poland and Belarus, and the fate of our relatives who remained behind during the Holocaust.

As the family had long feared, our relatives who were left behind were systematically murdered by the Nazis between 1942 and 1943, first by mass shootings, then being burned alive in open pits in the forest which became mass graves, then the rest (the healthy women and children, who had been spared up to this point) were sent to the nearest extermination camp in Bełżec, Poland, which was completely “liquidated” (their word) before the Red Army arrived, finding nothing to indict the guards but a field of ash and rubble. The descendants of those who were able to flee before these events are scattered, mostly here in the United States (in NY, FL, MI, AZ and CA) but also in England and Israel. I created a YouTube video outlining what I found for my Grandfather’s 90th birthday, since I was unable to attend the festivities and share them with him myself, and I wanted others to be able to share it with posterity to reduce the risk of these memories being lost again. It is easy to forget, especially when the memories are painful.

Speaking of painful memories: as so often happens, after losing faith in Mormonism I found myself an atheist trying to make sense of and redeem the first quarter century of my life that I spent listening to what I now thought of as false prophets and worshiping a false God. Losing my faith felt so much like losing a loved one. Similarly rebuilding my spiritual life has been a practice in resurrection of the dead. I believed then, and still hope that there is truth in the French proverb, to understand is to forgive. My wife, Shauni, and I found healing in the refuge of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and like many UU’s I came to feel that I didn’t really deserve the designation of atheist (I prefer Mormon Transhumanist Universalist Unitarian Jew, thank you very much! And if that’s too much of a mouthful, try MoTranshUJU). I developed a passion for the writings of Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist, educator, biology textbook writer and biographer of Charles Darwin who also happens to be a devout Catholic.

In his book Finding Darwin’s God, Miller tells of Darwin’s own struggle to find an ever-vanishing God between the gaps in our understanding of the natural world. Darwin eventually gave up on this struggle, but at one time shortly after publishing On the Origin of Species he certainly felt that he “deserved to be called a theist.” This made me wonder, what kind of God would Darwin have believed in, and could such a God evolve in our understanding, or even in reality? I found myself agreeing with Voltaire (despite his raging antisemitism) who once said, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him,” and I’ll add “her/them” there as well. I believe, in many ways, that is what we do here together: we search for, and maybe even create little pieces of God.

Also around this time, I was introduced to a group of free-thinking Mormons with some interesting ideas about the future and the intersection between religion and science calling themselves the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Associating with them, while being nurtured in the sanctuary of Unitarian Universalism, helped me to create my own theology, as it were, and restore my hope that, just maybe, I could begin to believe in a God (or Gods?) who does not yet exist, but may evolve from flawed beings (like ourselves) who manage not to destroy themselves once they have obtained a little knowledge and grown in wisdom, power and goodness until They become a being, or a community of beings, which (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis)  if we could see now we would be very strongly tempted to worship.

In philosophical circles this idea of an evolving God, who lacks the traditional omnimax characteristics (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence) professed in most monotheistic conceptions of God and instead uses persuasion rather than force to enact its will, is called Process Theology. Those familiar with the tenets of Mormonism, may recognize this couplet attributed to one of its founders, Lorenzo Snow:

“As man is now, God once was. As God now is, man may be.”

This teaching was later quasi-canonized in the apocryphal funeral address known as the “King Follet Sermon” of Joseph Smith, and those who profess such a belief  will see no contradiction between this metaphysical assertion of Mormonism and the stated goals of transhumanism, a philosophical movement which arises as an extension of the Enlightenment, based upon classical liberalism, empiricism and methodological naturalism (ideals which were flourishing in the early 19th century), taking these ideals to their logical ends. The problem, of course, with following an ideology to its logical end is extremism, and in religion as in secular society, this can lead to atrocity.

Perhaps the greatest atrocity there could possibly be is the permanent destruction, or anthropogenically caused extinction of an entire group of sentient beings, either of ourselves (i.e. omnicide) or another sentient genus (i.e. xenocide). Sadly, humanity is already guilty of this crime and will continue to perpetrate it for the foreseeable future, unless we can reverse the catastrophic effects of anthropogenic climate change.

*Snoring noise* Did I lose you? I know, that’s a lot of Greek, isms, and other tangential topics. In the next few paragraphs I will try to pull it together with a little help from the world of science fiction and borrow from a wonderful sermon I heard about 4 years ago that has really stuck with me.

A personal source of hope that this (avoiding further xenocide) can be done comes from my favorite work of fiction, which deals with the spiritual aftermath of such an atrocity and the long hard road towards reparation and reconciliation. The work is the follow up novel of the popular sci-fi story Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, which was made into a major film about 6 years ago. In his dotage, Card (a Utah Valley native and a Mormon) has become a divisive figure with alarming views on marriage equality, in particular. This may be controversial, but I believe it is possible to separate a work of art from its flawed creator, in this case a story of empathy and personal atonement is worthy and has merit, at least in my own mind. I apologize if my decision to use his material is offensive to any here and reassure you that I do not share his views. For those who have yet to read the book or watch the movie, warning: spoilers ahead!

First, some background on the story: in the future a young tactical prodigy is conscripted into an elite space battle school where he is forced to command fleets in “simulations” against an alien foe (the battles he realizes, too late, turn out to be real) and after being tricked by his military handlers into destroying an entire species of sentient beings that humanity had blundered into a war with, the protagonist Andrew Wiggin (thereafter known as Ender, the Xenocide) writes an empathic memoir of both his brother and the leader of the ant-like (i.e. Formic) aliens called The Hive Queen and the Hegemon, which inspires its readers to see even the most alien consciousness as “human” and becomes an itinerant, humanist priest bringing reconciliation throughout the sphere of human influence as a Speaker for the Dead . From the wiki article on this:

Speakers for the Dead were wandering representatives of a Humanist movement. Though they were not associated with any religion, they were treated with the respect accorded a priest or cleric. Speakers researched a deceased person's life and gave a speech that attempted to speak for them, describing the person's life as he or she lived it... Any citizen of a planet would have the legal right to summon a Speaker (or a priest of any faith, which Speakers are legally considered) to mark the death of a family member.

By doing this work, Ender prevents humanity from repeating the same mistake with another world of sentient beings as well as a new form of artificial life that are perceived by small minded leaders as a threat.

In Feb, 2015, Shauni and I heard a sermon by Rev. Terry Sims at our UU congregation in Arizona about his effort to act as a Speaker for the Dead for his own father who had recently passed away at the age of 92. He explained,

Speakers describe the person’s life as he or she tried to  live it: they tell the whole truth about the person, their intentions, their troubles, their desires and not just their actions. The speech is not given to persuade an audience, not to praise, not to condemn, not even to forgive. It’s a way to understand the person as a whole, including any flaws or misdeeds. In real life we tend not to speak ill of the dead. Let me put your minds at ease, I have nothing bad to say about anyone who has died, but it is easy once loved ones are gone to idealize them, much easier than when they are with us. 

Rev. Sims then went on to admonish that we should not eulogize someone so lavishly that no-one will recognize them, and quoted Ender saying, “When you really know somebody you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.” He related the chilling story of Gary Gilmore, a man from a troubled and broken home who committed two murders in Utah Valley in 1976, and later gained national attention by demanding that his death sentence be carried out by firing squad. His brother, Mikal Gilmore (a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine) later published a book trying to reconcile what his brother had done with their tumultuous childhood and the trauma of an abusive father, and he summarizes by saying “There will always be a father... Explanations are not excuses, but they are necessary when we want to tell the whole truth about any of us, how we came to be who are. Hurt people hurt people... Loved people love people.”

I have a strong desire to make sense of the traumas of my own past, the hurt and feelings of abandonment, neglect and betrayal from my own parents, grandparents and the religion of my upbringing, but also to find and cherish the love that has been shown me so that I can at least understand, if not forgive. I am trying to speak for the living and the dead. My efforts to understand my grandfather, and by extension my father, myself, my own children, ad infinitum, has become my spiritual quest. In my search for a post-secular religion and my hope (even, I’ll say it, faith!) in a post-human future God, I have found a new source of spirituality that connects me to my family, both ancestors and descendants, to you (in my view all of you, we, are God in process) and integrates my scientific worldview which rejects the supernatural, embraces humanity with all its flaws and promise with the transcendent and strenuous mood which calls me to my purpose and to right action. I believe in a future where we can be as good as we think God to be, and I believe that peace, liberty and justice will get us there.