The Mysticism of Death and Dying

1 / 2
Traditions of caring integrate death and dying into the life of the community.
2 / 2
“Remnants,” by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, is a multi-genre memoir of her spiritual life and social justice activism, blending traditions of birth, life, death and dying with mothering, healing and community-building.

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.”

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

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.

Visiting the Dying

Mom used to take me with her to visit people who were dying. I grew up with a respect for death, but I wasn’t afraid. I watched how my mother and other adults accompanied people in death, through death. How they talked to them about joyful things and shared good stories of earlier days to make the dying person laugh or smile. How they sometimes spoke of the relatives and friends who had already passed over and who would surely welcome the newly arriving loved one on the other side.

In our community, dying people were not left alone and children were included among those who comforted them. It was a very sacred time. And even though I didn’t always understand what was going on, I was aware of the special nature of the moment, its mystic quality. There was a reverence for the dead, and we were taught never to speak ill of them.

Most of the people we visited died at home—some were family members, some friends. At that time, in the 1930s and ’40s, the practice of dying in the hospital was not common among African Americans. Often we carried food, but sometimes we would just go and visit and sit. The people we visited had come up to Chicago from the South in the same era as my parents, and they would reminisce with my mother about old times, good times in their younger days. Visiting also meant that the families of the afflicted knew they were not alone in their distress.

I enjoyed listening to the adults talk. Their remembrances were always positive, pleasurable ones—they laughed and joked. But I also saw the sadness in my mother’s face as she acknowledged to herself that a good friend, a cousin, or a sister, was leaving. It gave me a sense of how to balance one’s own grief with the need to help the dying person leave amid as much happiness as possible. The need for joy in the midst of mourning seems to me now a central element in my family’s cultural traditions. And mourning is something we all help each other through.

Lessons in Social Justice

My mother was a consummate teacher. She could use any opportunity to pass on a lesson—and half the time she did it so well you didn’t even know you were learning anything until you thought about it later. When I was ten, my Uncle Clarence died of a cancerous tumor in his face. My mother visited him in the weeks before he passed and took me along. Although Mom prepared me, it was a difficult thing to see—Uncle Clarence’s entire right jaw was a gaping hole and he was in almost unbearable pain. He turned his head toward us when we walked in, but he couldn’t speak.

On the way home from the visit my mother said to me, “Do you know where he got that cancer from? From working with all that bad meat.” We could smell the stockyards from where we lived. Sometimes it reeked so overpoweringly we ourselves felt sick. “How many men who work at that stockyard are sick like your uncle?” I didn’t know the answer, but the question got me to thinking. “Rose,” my mother said, “all races of men work there. And it’s dangerous for all of them.” Soon my mother and I were having a conversation about the hazardous conditions of the Chicago stockyards where many men labored in a disease- producing environment with little concern from their bosses for protecting their health.

From experiences like this, I learned very early about injustice. My mother was using an African American cultural tradition—that is, not shielding children from the reality of pain and death—as a bridge to help me understand some broader truths about exploitation and social inequity. In the midst of it all were her caring and concern for Uncle Clarence and for others like him. And so, even with her anger, her pain, her sense of the wrong done to so many, Mom talked to Uncle Clarence, tried to make him laugh a little bit and remembered stories that eased the difficult moments.

Building Community

I think my mother carried me with her to visit our friends and family who were dying because she noticed that, even at an early age, I wasn’t anxious in the presence of death. Sickness didn’t much bother me either—in fact, after my sister Mildred married and moved away, I was usually the person in the family who looked after those who weren’t well. I didn’t mind cleaning up accidents and I had patience with people who were weak and disoriented from illness. Also, I always had a kind of affinity for the dead. In Woodlawn, we lived around the corner from a funeral parlor—Banks Funeral Home. I got to know the mortician, Mr. Banks, and he would let me observe the bodies he prepared for viewing and burial. Sometimes I had known the people “laid out” with care and distinction at Mr. Banks’s mortuary. At other times, I didn’t recognize the faces. Either way I glimpsed a bit of the transition at the end of physical life and that fascinated me. Mr. Banks directed my brother Bud’s funeral as well as that of my cousin Isaac, and I went by to see both bodies before the public viewings.

We gather at death. The wake and the dinner after the funeral are unique moments of fellowship and abundance with a plenteousness of everything: food, people, laughter, liquor, music, and memory. I remember the dinner at my sister Mildred’s house, when our brother Thomas died. We call it the “re-past.” Every seat in the house had somebody in it and the only space for chairs was in the middle of the living room floor, and that’s where a group of older men congregated to reminisce together. They were cousins and old friends of my brother who had all grown up together. They were telling baseball stories, talking about things they had done when they were younger. Leaning back in the chairs, balancing the chicken, macaroni and cheese, ham and greens on their knees, they gestured with their hands for emphasis. They were relaxed and remembering and it was so good to see them that way.

Gatherings around death give us that opportunity to sit and be companions to each other in remembrance. At funerals, family who have not seen each other for years will come back to celebrate and recall the life of the loved one they have lost. Old ties are renewed and new relatives are introduced to each other—the children and grandchildren of cousins, the new spouses, the new babies. It is as if in compensation for the loss, we use the time of death as an occasion to assert the continuity of life, the line going on.

Cultural Traditions of Secrecy and Boundaries

There were certain things in my experience as a child, certain events, that were never discussed. Some stories, some customs, were shared only as knowledge was necessary and then with an attitude of hesitation, reticence. I believe the reasons for concealment centered around two issues. Sometimes, the information revealed was too painful—so tremendously and profoundly painful that the act of recognition risked the release of a haphazard power, an energy whose discharge required a careful, almost ritual attention. This, I believe, was the case in the almost complete lack of conversation about the horrors that sent my family fleeing to the North in the late twenties. It was not until 1960, when I was preparing to go south to work fulltime in the freedom movement, and when white vigilante terrorism— and the economic and political system that supported it—was being confronted with a mass movement, that my father and mother began to open up about some of the barbarities they had experienced. Events like the hanging and gutting of a pregnant woman or the lynching of a man and his four sons from the limbs of a single tree were a large part of the reason my family left their farms and fled north. But I didn’t hear those stories until decades later. It was as if there had to have been a way out of (or the urgent concern for a daughter who was going into) the madness before it was safe to talk about it.

In other cases, secrecy is a sign of intimate connection to the life force. There are some family practices, taboos around certain kinds of contact at birth and death, that my relatives refuse to talk about on tape. Certain spirit stories that are told only in hushes when told at all. In these instances, the required discretion has to do with a recognition of boundaries. Some things are kept protected—either so their strength will not do harm to the unwary or so their energy and efficacy will not be diluted by misuse and misinterpretation. As with the ghost stories, there is here in the matter of secrecy, a strong element of propriety at work, “a meaning of restraint” as Charles H. Long would call it. A sense of what is appropriate in which time and space; a recognition that a creative and meaningful life is not possible without some constraint.

Dreams and Sight

Closely related to the experience of ghosts and spirits in the African American mystic tradition are dreams, visions, and sight. Anyone familiar with southern folk traditions—Black and white—has probably heard of the “caul.” Some people are believed to have the gift of divination or foresight because they were “born with a caul” or a “veil,” which means that the amniotic sac was on their head and face when they came through the birth canal. My mother and great-grandmother had this kind of sight. But Mom used to say that she could “see,” not because of being born with a caul, but because she came from a “clean womb.” In spite of the fact that my grandmother’s water broke days before her child emerged into the world, my mother, Ella Lee Harris, was born healthy and lived to be 103 with a number of remarkable abilities, the greatest omen of which she attributed to coming from “a clean womb.” Many years later, I discovered that there is a tradition among Tibetans that diviners and seers are born from “clean wombs.”

“Sight” or “seeing” is not simply a matter of the ability to foretell future events. It is part of a larger orientation that recognizes the existence of a variety of means of access to information, help, wisdom, and warning. Here, too, as with the ghost and spirit stories, is a vigorous connection between the seen and unseen worlds. Dreams, visions, and signs are other axial elements of this orientation. There is a vast tradition among African Americans of dreaming and paying close attention to dreams. Dreams can be auguries of coming good or ill. Dreams of deceased relatives and friends are often interpreted as forms of communication with them, and the sharing of dreams within a household or among friends is a way to connect with a collective wisdom regarding the meaning of a particular feeling or event.

Seeking Communion with God

In the little Black Baptist churches of southwest Georgia (like the one where my grandfather, Papa Jim, was a deacon), there is an old tradition of “seeking”— going out into the woods for days at a time, alone, with only the most simple provisions, to look and listen for the leading of God. Like the forty days Jesus spent wandering in the desert and like the vision quests of our Native American brothers and sisters, these times of solitary communion with the presence of God were an important step in the spiritual journey of many Black folks in towns like the one where Mom and Dad were born. I don’t know if my mother ever took that kind of faith journey, out alone in the pine woods, but surely she carried some of its quality, some of its history, in her own approach to spirit, and that mystic seeking has remained with me too.

Some of the oldest Black churches in Lee County, Georgia, started out as “brush harbors,” far out in the country where white folks would not easily reach, where first enslaved people and then the descendants went to worship. The earliest of these simply constructed shelters were often open on all sides with just a covering of branches and leaves for a roof. The people who gathered here were folks well attuned to the cycles of agriculture and nature, of planting and harvesting, moon phases and the rising of the creeks and rivers that coursed through the land. Some of this knowledge they had brought with them from ancestral places and some of it they gained from the new land itself. And all of this seeped into their understanding of the new religion, Christianity, and gave it an ancient diasporic scent.

Reprinted with permission from Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Motheringby Rosemarie Freeney Harding, published by and copyright Duke University Press, 2015.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.