Responses to “Passings”

I have been blogging for quite awhile and have never gotten the response that I have from this post. I am deeply moved by  your responses, nine of which are posted in the comments section associated with this blog post. For a variety of reasons I usually do not respond to individual comments (mainly having to do with being too personal to share with all readers) and have not done so here on this blog post. That does not mean that your comments do not mean a great deal to me. They do, and thank you Dan, Jessica, Roger, Doug, Tom, Alex, Mary, Eva, and Hank! And also to Mike, Jim, Andrew, and Martine, who frequently weigh in.

This time I have received even more comments through personal emails. Embry read your comments and suggested I post them here. As in the blog comments section, many are quite moving and in my view profound. I have posted a sampling below but, with a couple of  exceptions, without   any names or otherwise identifying information. I know who you are but you remain anonymous here because given the personal nature of many of your comments, I was not sure how comfortable you would be with my sharing. Embry felt strongly, however, that your words needed to be heard, and I agree. Here they are:

I copied part of your blog because: first, I  wanted to reread it  ( I could almost guess where exactly you were going – having read many JTH, III  stories with classic build-up and then … the rest of the story )  and second , because I never knew exactly where you stood on “the afterlife”.  And also, why you never became a minister.  You might have hinted at that, but I didn’t remember the paper you had to write.

   I am happy you never did (become a reverend). In my mind, you have done much more to help people needing help and also you have been a more thoroughly real person.  I am convinced you are more existentially honest than the fellow who gave you a D. Where do these church leaders get their arrogance? They turn me off and I am sure that is a big reason the church, as we know it, is dying.  

   I have insisted to my wife that at my funeral there will be no mention of me going to some afterlife or of any resurrection. I’ll be happy if my family, kids and wife, and friends think well of me. But, of course, I want to leave a legacy of good will and generosity, also.


Thanks for sending. This is not something I think about or worry about. I figure what happens happens. It isn’t that I don’t care, but that I have no control over it. I have many more interesting things to keep my mind occupied between now and then. (I think your professor was wrong. I haven’t been to seminary, but I did my time at Davidson, and I don’t think a few verses in John are a determining factor. There are many important lessons to learn from the teachings of Jesus and, in my mind, being “saved” is not one of them.)


I have only one fault with your terrific essay: You were not unfit for the Episcopal priesthood.  Your essay persuades me that you were not only very fit for it but also more fit than many who were ordained.  Your life has been laced with serving that priesthood, whether or not officially ordained.  


Thanks for sharing these thoughts.  Thanks for what you’ve done along the way.  We still have a bit more of the marathon to go, and I’m with you all the way. 


Thank you for this impassioned and heartfelt message on how the deaths of these two good friends impacted you greatly.  We are about the same age and I agree with much of what you say.  I was a bit stunned by your experience in Divinity School.  Above all, death is the one of the greatest of the mysteries we experience over a lifetime.  I guess I would have also gotten at least a D.  Our lives are indeed a gift, and If we can work things out as we would hope, much of what you say of qualities we aspire to indeed constitute a good life.  I too have trouble imagining I will be reconstituted at the time of my death.  As the Bible tells us, doing good works is no guarantee we make it to heaven.

I once did a seminar on aging and realized that our life span does exist as Jung had said, in quadrants that start and end with the beginning and certainly the end.  I feel that’s part of God’s plan, we aren’t here forever.  We can aspire to be the best person he/she would hope for us to be and live a life that honors the tenants of our faith, whether Christian or one of the other theologies in the world.  Life, however, teaches us that things don’t always work out as we would hope they would and we can’t necessarily say that’s all part of God’s plan.  Man does a good job of demonstrating terrible inhumanity to others, but without faith that there is more, my life would be an empty internal space.

Just as we good Presbyterians know, even though our Sunday School classes taught us otherwise, Jesus was not a blond, blue eyed person.  So much is through the interpretation of believers.  Jesus’s disciples were certainly flawed people as the Bible clearly tells us and maybe that’s a part of interpretation we can take to heart.  We are all deeply flawed and certainly commit sin, but we do the best we can and pray that it will be acceptable to the Lord or one’s deity of choice and that is a lifetimes’ work.


Joe, I am truly honored to be on your list. I really enjoyed your thoughts. This is the real you. And it’s great. Sorry for the losses of your friends and classmates. Not fun. 


Thank you for the gift of this splendid piece of writing.  I am right there with you.  Struggled with Jesus and God for years. As a young teen I realized that having Jesus die for me was more sacrifice and guilt than I could handle or believe. I would never be enough!  And sitting at the right hand of God was nothing I aspired to. Taking Jesus as my Lord and Savior did not give my life meaning nor help me to know that my life was important as is, with all its trial and error.  Finding people who live with the integrity unique to their own being helped me find my way to my own soul self. 

Now, I feel Jesus died doing what he believed in and is an inspired (con spirito) example of one who lived his life journey through service and love of neighbor as self. He also gives us story examples of ways we might “rise from the dead,” see ourselves as having a new life within when we are helped to know what beautiful human beings we are. As to afterlife, it is for sure a mystery and, for me, also this mystical sense of the cycle of life being larger than we know.  As with the natural world, there is life and death, and seasons, and making compost, and an energetic sense of presence in plant, tree, rock, creek, bird, dragonfly …  For several in my Dream sharing group there is even communication from the other side.  The Judeo-Christian definitions of spirituality are way too narrow. 

Well, I am using too many words, but it is the first time in a long time that I have tried to explain what I believe about Christian doctrine and death. As one friend said, “My hope is to pass from this life a little lighter.”  And my friend, John, was dying he talked about “being wound into largeness.”  

The only words in your writing, Joe, that gave me pause are “reverence for the Divine.”  It all depends on your definition, of course, but for me Divine is too connected to a deity. I need my reverence to become more and more broad, to include the spiritual nature of life on this planet. There are wonderful human examples of the ‘divine’ but the capital D kind of leaves out all the other possibilities  that share themselves with us, whether waking to a sunrise, dreaming at night, or transforming before our eyes as the Monarch caterpillar did this very morning, emerging from that gorgeous chrysalis into a black and orange butterfly that will dry her wings, nectar on flowers, and fly 2500 mile to Mexico.

I guess a lot of people, maybe most people, go through spiritual chaos of some kind during the transition into adulthood. At some point I finally decided I would never, in this life, know.  The best I could do was believe.  I have continued to keep a sharp distinction between those two words. Leap of faith. And my faith and belief is in some type of spiritual continuum after death. 

“For now we see as through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face.” That’s just me.


As you know, I am at best a sporadic reader of your blog. I spend too much time at the computer and still have a daunting backlog of things to read. Thanks for sending this piece directly.

All you wrote resonated with me. We have had the same experience of multiple passings over the past four months — friends, colleagues, a former fraternity brother from college, and a few parents of friends, including my mother, a half dozen or more. Just last night we were at the shiva for the mother of someone from our synagogue — not a close friend, but someone we see every week at the lunch after services.

As much of a rebel against Christian orthodoxy about death and the afterlife as you are, I am even less spiritual and also firmly in the camp that death is just the end. Judaism doesn’t have a clear conception of an afterlife, and I’m finding that many observant Jews don’t even believe in God, so I’m not such an outlier in that regard.

I really liked your marathon analogy. Having done a couple, and now at an age where 10 miles feels like a marathon, it rang true to me.


Thanks for this, dear Joe, echoes my own thoughts exactly.

Excellent, Captain!   You get an “A” this time.  Believe I’ll forward to my minister.


Beautiful. masterful. every word perfect pitch.

And with your life behind each one.

Bravo! Thanks.


Joe: As always from you: beautiful writing, thoughtful, provocative, and kind.


I will chime in here too, although it’s hard to add much to Judy’s eloquent response, nor to the many others posted on the blog… except to say that I too found this essay beautiful, profound and moving. Thank you, Dad. 
It was a timely topic for me… at my age, I am the New York marathoner who has just entered Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge (mile 15). There is certainly plenty of running left, and arguably the most scenic, memorable part (Central Park), but my pace is starting to slow, I’m feeling a mild throbbing in my left knee, and the finish is becoming less of an abstraction. Lately I’ve been thinking about that finish line a little more, what it will look like and how I will feel when I get there.
This is a topic for all ages though. On a recent evening, Parker, age 9, who has recently lost his great grandmother, suddenly raised the topic of death and the question of what happens afterwards. This started as a calm, clear discussion, but he became increasingly sad and upset. He told me that what troubled him thinking about death was not the idea that you die, nor even that you may lose consciousness forever, nor that you will be forgotten by the loved ones you leave behind. It is that those people who remember you will eventually die themselves. And that, ultimately, everyone will be forgotten.
“Daddy, who’s the most famous person who ever lived.” “Gosh I don’t know… Maybe Jesus? Or George Washington?” “Well do you think that someday they might also be forgotten by everybody?” “I I don’t know the answer to that, Parker. I don’t think anybody knows.”
I had not thought about this question quite in that way before, but I must admit that he has a good point. That is a troubling question. 
But dad I think your essay, which came out a couple of days after this conversation, speaks too many of these questions and fears. Karen and I have decided to read a (slightly edited) version of your essay to both the kids, which I think will be helpful to them around the time of grandma’s funeral in a few weeks.



Joe’s blogpost and the responses to it, from Judy, Andrew, and others, are a highlight of this month for me. I admire my uncle for diving deep and the rest of you for doing the same in your responses.

Children are great philosophers. They haven’t yet been socialized to keep silent those questions for which there are no answers. Just because a question doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to ask it. Thank you, Parker! Humanity has found different ways for dealing with the anxieties he courageously expresses. I’m thinking, for example, of the Yahrzeit candle in Judaism, lit on the anniversary of a person’s death, the candle being an expression of remembrance: as long as we remember those who have passed on, they are not truly dead, because they continue to live on in us. Is this the true afterlife? If so, remembrance takes on greater weight and becomes a greater responsibility, for us individually and collectively. My father has spent much of his life recording and remembering, in his writing and art, the lives of those who have marked him. This is one way to respond to Parker’s question.

In Buddhism, there is the idea of reincarnation, which can be interpreted in a literal, anthropomorphic way, as being reborn as another human being, or as another living creature. But many teachers in the tradition also explain it in a more practical and empirically observable sense. Because nothing absolutely disappears in our universe. Matter takes one form, then that form goes through its life cycle, decays, and is taken up in something else. The parrot who for years was one of my best friends lives on for me in the dogwood at whose foot we buried him. There is a movement of people who choose to be buried in wild places (the desert, a forest) without caskets, so they can “return to the elements.” The Tibetans, a bit shockingly to many Westerners but logically for me, have their bodies left in the charnel ground so they can be consumed by vultures and other animals and thus live on in them. One day this humanity and even this planet will disappear, and Jesus Christ, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Socrates, and Confucius will be forgotten, their candles finally extinguished. But this matter will be taken up and live on elsewhere, in other beings, because it cannot be otherwise.



Dear Alex-
It’s very clear that Joe’s post has indeed struck a chord for many of us.  In my comment to Joe about the incredible mystery that Death is, it’s inevitable that each of us faces our own mortality in our own way.  For those of us who have been on the planet about as long as Joe, we realize that this inexorable reality becomes even more present.
I was very touched by your comments as well as Andrew’s, Judy’s and others’.  Coming to terms with this most personal of realities is brought home by the losses of those we have loved in a deep and profound way.  I too was moved by Parker’s questions and his desire to make sense of this final passage of life.  There is always for those of us older folks, the question of how to explain those who are now gone and how we still endure.  Certainly old age is a reality we can accept with the end of life, but for children and I think of our own Grandchildren, how does one make sense of the senseless loss of life due to shootings or the endless wars our children & Grandchildren have experienced for so much of their lives?
Hopefully, we can savor the “essence of character” that those we have lost represented.  For those of you who knew Dash, Rick’s beloved mother, her almost 99 years of life certainly represents what our family would aspire to.  As my own life continues on, with the Blessing of good health and the love of a family who means everything to me, I know the day will come.  Our personal sense of faith and “how to explain things” constantly evolves.  The innocence of a child such as Parker and the ability to question some of the unspoken values adults hold dear, indeed speaks to the “great philosophers” Alex and Andrew so eloquently discuss in the miracle that is a child.
Thank you for the comments of all.  



2 thoughts on “Responses to “Passings”

  1. Joe,
    You edited out of my email the lead sentence, “Exquisite writing, as usual.” So, to correct the record, EXQUISITE WRITING, AS USUAL!


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