I must confess my first reaction when I heard of Justice Scalia’s death. I was just happy, happy that he could no longer get in the way of the rights of my gay or female or non-white friends. Out of the way! I smiled. My second feeling was guilt. What kind of person celebrates the death of another human being? Does Ethical Culture have anything to say about this?
One of the big selling points that traditional religions have is rituals, behaviors, beliefs and taboos around death. For one thing, you don’t speak ill of the dead. All life is sacred and is in God’s hands. And the biggest payoff is a heavenly life after death.
Exiting Our Way
At Ethical Culture, we don’t have such taboos or divine rewards. Death may be desirable, not because of an afterlife, but because death may bring comfort to the dying themselves. After my dad lost his appetite and couldn’t sleep through the night with his constant coughing, he just didn’t want to live anymore. For Ethical Culture, that’s not a sin. For those of us who serve as support, dying brings an intimacy in anticipation of loss, a sense of urgency and tenderness. Yes, modern medicine can prolong life, but does nothing for the swirling emotions while dying and the enduring sense of loss that follows. The most we can do is to strive to prepare ourselves. What may help is the time-honored distraction of others, the same as in traditional religions, mourning in community through home visits, funerals and memorials. We get to honor our departed and to share our sorrow.
The Transience of Life
For Scalia, as for others, death becomes the touchstone that releases the story of how we lived. We at Ethical have an advantage in this. Ethical provides us with an insurance policy of living a purposeful life. Donating mattresses for impoverished children in Uganda, providing shelter for Syrian refugees, promoting clean energies, teaching our children ethics, protesting dangerous oil train cars, raising awareness of racism …there is no end to the ways in which we do good. Participate in our programs, volunteer to help out on Sundays, and we can inoculate ourselves against a life adrift, without purpose or commitment. Our time on earth is short, and meaningful work is life’s most fruitful engine.
Justice Scalia, I acknowledge and applaud your passion for public service. I still do not mourn your death. Your friends and family are enough to mourn you. But imagine if you had devoted your steely intelligence, affability and considerable power to erasing civil rights injustices and allied yourself with us at Ethical Culture. Imagine if you had joined us in our mission. Now that would have made me smile, guilt-free.