One of my favorite movies as a kid was I Heard the Call My Name (1973) based on the book by the same name by Margaret Craven in 1967. I have never read the book, but probably will should, even though I loved the movie. Basically it is the story of an Anglian priest with an incurable disease (unknown to him, but known to the Bishop) who is sent to a remote Indian village in British Columbia to minister to the Kwakiutls. It is the story of how he and the villagers become family. It is while he is ministering in the village that he comes to consider it to be his home and family. Also, he hears the owl call his name.
According to Kwakwaka’wakw belief, to hear an owl call a person’s name was a foretelling of imminent death. This is not a belief that is central only to the Kwakiutls tribe . . . there are many tribes that speak to this belief. In looking at the mythology of owls there are many references to this idea. Since I was a teen this idea . . . this phrase . . . has always fascinated me.
Owls are not easy to find . . . at least they haven’t been since we have been in Montana. The first owl I ever saw in Montana was several years ago at the entrance of a ranch on a country road near the homestead at dusk. The second one was in Yellowstone Park in the dead of winter. The third was on an isolated mountain in Idaho. And, then this evening . . . just down the street from our house. It was a magnificent bird . . . but I did not hear the owl call my name . . . I heard it hooting, but I did not hear my name. But, then again, I might have missed it since I am not fluent in Great Horned Owl.
As I have stated, this “idea” . . . from learning it from the movie . . . has always fascinated me. I think, whether we want to admit it or not, that we all have some sense of death within our lives and thoughts. I think we all have inklings about death . . . but, most of the time we push it back to the deepest recesses of our minds because we really do not want to deal with the thought of death. But, it is there.
In an earlier blog I wrote about the fact that for many years . . . especially in my twenties . . . I figured I would die around the age of fifty . . . well, I broke that prediction by nearly seven years now. I am still among the living. Death is not uncommon in my life. As a minister I have dealt with numerous deaths . . . people die. Burying the dead is part of ministry, and as a minister I have celebrated the lives of hundreds through death. As a child I have witnessed the deaths of my parents. Death is no stranger in my life. Yet, like everyone else, I do not give it much thought for the most part . . . kind of depressing when you think about it.
Though most of us are not willing to give it much thought, it is a part of life. Probably more prevalent than most of us will give it credit for in our daily lives. It is natural . . . but, depressing none the less. Who wants to think about death when life seems to be so much fun. Whether we like it or not, it is there . . . it is there no matter what age we might be. Didn’t someone once say that the only certain things in life are death and taxes?
Lately, I have a friend on Facebook who has become greatly aware of his fascination of death . . . his desire to understand death . . . to come to a more holistic awareness of death . . . especially as it touches the lives of those he cares about and loves . . . about how it touches his life. This friend is not a young person, but one that others might consider lingering in the “twilight years” . . . he is not a spring chicken. He has started a blog dealing only with death . . . interesting, and at time fascinating reading. He has just watching the old HBO series, Six Feet Under—an excellent study about death in such a way that one cannot help but to be moved to discernment about the topic of death. His interest has sparked a small fire within me to respond to his interest . . . and, maybe this is just the first attempt to address my understanding of death to him. Whatever the case, I have to admit that death is never too far from my consciousness . . . death, whether we admit it or not, is a constant companion in our journey through life.
As I spied the owl from where I was grilling this evening, I could not help but to speak out loud, “I heard an owl call my name . . .” And, now this . . . a blog about death.
One of my favorite songs about death . . . well, about the hardship of life . . . comes from Stephen Foster. It is titled Hard Times Come Again No More. If you have never heard it, take the time to Google it and listen to it. My favorite version is from a group called Eastmountainsouth (http://youtu.be/Aw14mwAp5oM). For an old song it has not lost it message:
Let us pause in life's pleasures and count the many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh, hard times come again no more
It's a song a sigh of the weary
Hard times hard times come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more
Though we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
They are frail forms a-waiting by our door
Though their voices are silent, their pleading seems to say
Oh, hard times come again no more
It's a sigh that is wafted across the lowly plains
It's a wail that is heard upon the shore
It's a dirge that is murmured across the lonely grave
Oh hard times come again no more
I think that life is difficult and that death is often the exit that provides relief . . . at least for the one who is dying or dead. Yet, death signifies hard times for those who are left behind . . . sometimes it only lasts for a little, sometimes a while longer, and . . . sometimes it never seems to end. Life is hard, death is even harder . . . so, says Mr. Foster, let us enjoy the moment.
Another song about death that has always struck a chord within me is by the band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In the song, Buy for Me the Rain, again emphasizes that death is not for the dead it is for the living . . . a reminder . . . a memory. My favorite line from the song is: “Gravestones cheer the living, dear, they’re no use to the dead.” A wonderful song. You can listen to it hear http://youtu.be/_hxc6Vnph4E. The lyrics:
Buy for me the rain, my darling, buy for me the rain;
Buy for me the crystal pools that fall upon the plain.
And I'll buy for you a rainbow and a million pots of gold.
Buy it for me now, babe, before I am too old.
Buy for me the sun, my darling, buy for me the sun;
Buy for me the light that falls when day has just begun.
And I'll buy for you a shadow to protect you from the day.
Buy it for me now, babe, before I go away.
Buy for me the robin, darling, buy for me the wing;
Buy for me a sparrow, almost any flying thing.
And I'll buy for you a tree, my love, where a robin's nest may grow.
Buy it for me now, babe, the years all hurry so.
I cannot buy you happiness, I cannot by you years;
I cannot buy you happiness, in place of all the tears.
But I can buy for you a gravestone, to lay behind your head.
Gravestones cheer the living, dear, they're no use to the dead.
Again, it is the living that is important.
As a pastor I have presided over countless funeral services . . . stood over the graves of many . . . and, I have oftened wondered about who would preside over my grave, who would preside over my funeral. An old Appalachian song speaks to this. In this song, Who Will Sing for Me, the singer –-who sings at the funeral services of many, wonders, who will sing for him when he dies. The song by the Stanley Brothers can be heard here at http://youtu.be/qOMUDCc9jOg as song by Emmylou Harris. The words should make us all pause to think . . . who will eulogize us when we die?
Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
When I reach my journey's end
Who will sing one song for me
I wonder (I wonder) who
Will sing (will sing) for me
When I'm called to cross that silent sea
Who will sing for me
When friends shall gather round
And look down on me
Will they turn and walk away
Or will they sing one song for me
So I'll sing til the end
Contented I will be
Assured that some friends
Will sing one song for me
If we are honest with ourselves, death is there. There is no escaping it. So, what is death? Is death an end? Is it a beginning? Is it a bump in the journey? Does it really matter? As I have stated over and over again, people don’t like to think about death. Yet, there is no escaping death. Everyone eventually dies. That is a fact. The question then is: how do we handle death? I really do not think that the dead care.
I think that the goal is in the living.
How does one die gracefully?
How does one die well?
I have always jokingly said that I will probably not die gracefully or well. Nope, I am going out kicking and screaming . . . a complete embarrassment to my family and friends. Actually, I am kidding. I don’t know how I will die . . . don’t know if it will be gracefully or not. I really do not know whether it matters or not . . . especially to those who are left behind. I do not think people remember the dying . . . what they remember is the living.
This is not a dissertation on death. These are nothing more than random thoughts about death. I am still thinking about death . . . what it means, what it represents, what it is. All I know is that death is a constant companion. There is not a day in my life that I am not confronted by death. Yes, I heard an owl . . . and, no, it was not calling my name . . . but, it did make me pause. It made me pause and think . . .
In the thinking . . . in the discerning . . . in the prayer . . . we come closer to the realization about death, about life, and what we are going to do between the beginning and the end. Death only reminds us of life . . . damn owl. I just wanted to cook a couple of steaks, enjoy a beer, and appreciate the moment . . . you know, life. Maybe the owl was just trying to remind me . . .
Gravestones cheer the living, dear, they’re no use to the dead.