As this program came to life over several years, death was a part of our own lives. Lee Ann’s mother died in December 2004 from cancer. Kate’s mother died in May 2006 after a 30-year struggle with multiple sclerosis. One day before her mother’s death, Kate’s uncle died a lonely, isolated death in his apartment after intentionally neglecting his diabetes. Two months later, still raw, Kate had to euthanize her dog, who in many ways was her best friend.
Death was present as this program evolved. Church members died and others approached death. The deaths we have experienced are not necessarily unusual in their occurrence or even their frequency. Death permeates our society every day. Headlines tell us of war in faraway countries, local murders, and fatal car accidents. We worry about neighbors serving in the military and attend memorial services for family members, colleagues, and friends. While those who live surrounded by war or widespread outbreaks of life-threatening disease experience death more than others, death is a part of all human experience.
Despite the constant presence of death, dying, and grief in our lives, we in the Western world rarely speak of it openly and directly. We are particularly reluctant to speak of our own deaths. The one institution that should lead the way in fostering and supporting such conversations is the faith community, but our faith communities often seem to neglect this inevitable part of life.
Unitarian Universalists have become quite good at creating memorial services that focus on celebrating the life of the deceased. These services are personal and reflect the person’s life rather than focusing on their death and where they may or may not be after death. Memorial services are supported by humor and music and often allow family and friends to share stories. After attending a UU memorial service, many people from other faiths have noted what a wonderful and healing event it was for them and how much they wish their own faith community would do something similar. Yet, until now, Unitarian Universalists did not have a death and dying curriculum published by the Association. The two of us decided to take the lead and create our own.
Since writing this program a few years ago, we have been pleased to see the conversation on death and dying expand in the public forum. Despite political and cultural efforts to suppress the public conversation, U.S. society is slowly moving forward in its willingness to read, talk, learn, and embrace the idea that we’re all going to die one day. While Unitarian Universalist ministers have been quietly and individually working with eager congregants across the country on pastoral issues having to do with death, dying, and grief, we are delighted to offer this adult faith development resource for lay and professional Unitarian Universalist leaders to help people prepare for the moment when death finally arrives at its own pace and in its own place.
—Kate Walker and Lee Ann Wester