The Mysticism of Death and Dying

Rosemarie Freeney Harding recalls family traditions surrounding death and dying, and the dreams and signs that preceded deaths in the family.

| September 2015

Remnants (Duke University Press, 2015) is a joint memoir by Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Elizabeth Harding of Rosemarie’s spiritual life and social justice activism. A blend of many cultural and religious traditions integral to Rosemarie’s community-building is evident in the stories, journal entries and essays interlaced throughout this memoir. The following excerpt is from chapter 12, “Death, Dreams, and Secrecy.”

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Death and dying were surrounded by signs in my family. Omens and forewarnings: a whirlwind rising from the floor to carry my grandmother skyward. My brother’s gift of red roses falling over new in a vase. Aunt Mary fighting with Death as if he was a man, and her sister, Ella, my mother, helping her to hold off Death’s hunger for a little while. The three days of snow when Aunt Mary finally passed on. And the rainbow sign of my father’s time coming.

When Aunt Mary was dying she asked her sister, Ella Lee, to spend the night with her. They slept in the same bed and as the night went on, Aunt Mary began to lash out. She was fighting Death with her fists because she wasn’t ready to go. “Ella do you see him?” Aunt Mary cried. “Do you see him, Ella?” Mom said she did see Death trying to wrap his arms around her sister. Mom’s presence, and maybe other things, too, helped Aunt Mary push Death back for at least that night. When Aunt Mary finally died, there was a three-day snowstorm in Chicago. The heaviest snowfall in decades.

My mother could “see” the impending deaths of family members in dreams and signs. When my grandmother, Mama Liza, passed, Mom saw her stand in the center of the floor and rise toward the ceiling in a whirlwind. Mom also saw a rainbow in her sleep, days before my father died, and knew it was a message that her husband’s days on this earth were not long.

I don’t know if my mother was conscious that the rainbow is a symbol of the continuity of life and death among the Yoruba and Ewe-Fon peoples of West Africa. Did she know, too, that prodigious precipitation is a sign of the passing of a great soul? Perhaps. But even if she was not aware of these West African signs of transition from material form into spirit, they were somewhere in the collective cultural memory that she carried up from Georgia in her stories, in her wisdom, and in her living.