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Magnificent Worms

I attended a funeral on Sunday afternoon. No, not a “funeral.” A “memorial.” Or a “celebration of life.” Or an “open house,” of sorts. The deceased had been gone for months, but a gathering had been planned (which itself is by no means a given these days). It was held in a museum atrium, overlooking the hills and river that he had loved to explore. There were lovely tributes and memories and photos and videos shared. There was coffee and snacks. There was a beautiful view.

We don’t really know what to do with dying these days. Increasingly (and increasingly terrifyingly), we want to die on our own terms. One last assertion of imagined autonomy. But this was not an autonomous death. This was a long, slow, decline. Peaceful, for the most part, but also tragic given the vibrant life that preceded it. Why must some people’s lives end so? It doesn’t seem fair. I remembered conversations I had with him before dementia began to colonize his brain. We talked theology and philosophy and ecology. He smiled a lot, especially when we reached an impasse. I suspect he thought the preacher was a bit naïve. Perhaps he was right.

This morning, I read an interview with Dave Matthews in GQ. I’m not a huge fan, but I enjoy some of his stuff. And given that dying was on my mind, I was drawn by the title of the article: “The Dave Matthews Guide to Living and Dying.” I didn’t really expect Dave Matthews to have any uniquely penetrating insights, but I’m always interested to see how people are thinking about these big existential questions in our post-Christian, disenchanted days.

In the article, a story is told of a day around five years ago when Matthews and a friend were out on a bike ride when his friend just collapsed and died. Bang. Just like that. It sounds simultaneously terrible and not-so-bad. No half-decade decline for this guy. No fog of dementia, no confusion and disorientation, no endless hours killing time (literally) in a soulless institution. You just go from riding your bike with a friend to the great beyond. Or the great nothingness, I suppose, depending on your perspective. Either way, no prolonged suffering, no diminishing decline, which most of us would take.

It was a shock to the system for Matthews. Obviously. “But that’s what we are,” he said. “We’re like magnificent worms.”

Not the most flattering metaphor, perhaps, but we get the idea. It’s not at all cool to think that human beings are special or distinct from the rest of the natural world these days. To believe so is to out yourself as some kind of weird fundamentalist (or at least fundamentalist-adjacent). Far better to keep things resolutely terrestrial, I suppose, even if I think we should be a little more curious than we are as to why it is we, and not the worms, who spend our time making music and meaning and celebrating lives looking out over the rivers and hills. Which of those two words is doing more of the explanatory work in describing the human animal, “magnificent” or “worms?”

At one point the interviewer asked Matthews if he ever pictured his own death.

“Yeah,” he says, “I think I do. I think about the people I’d leave behind. I need to stop making friends, so I can outlive all the people I care about, and who care about me. And then I can just drop dead. But I have to stop finding new people to like.”

A tongue-in-cheek response, no doubt. But perhaps a telling one. Love is one of those magnificent things that makes life worth living. It’s also what makes death painful and threatening. We all know this. The thought of leaving (and leaving behind) our deepest loves is an existential dread that we feel in our bones. But what a curious response to the inevitability of death. The “worm” will just have to find a way to steer clear of the things that made its existence “magnificent.” What an odd accommodation. Should we also stop making music because one day we won’t be able to hear it?

There wasn’t much God-talk at the celebration of life in the museum on Sunday. As in many cases, faith, while not absent from the deceased’s life, was complicated and strewn with questions and doubts. And as in virtually all occasions of death and dying these days, family members are all over the place when it comes to religion or irreligion. Best not to offend or complicate things unnecessarily, I suppose.

There were, however, hints around the edges (God always seems leave hints, even when he doesn’t make an explicit appearance). There was a moving story shared by the deceased’s health-care aide. She spoke of how caring for him had been for her “a source of redemption.” She had been unable to care for her own father as he lay dying a world away in the war-torn country from which she had fled. These last years were a chance to care for a “father figure,” to offer him what she could not give her own father. It was an incredibly moving testimony of grace, love, and care (extended in both directions).

There was also a doxology sung at the conclusion of the sharing time. It was a bit half-hearted, no doubt, and a few keys too low for most people’s range. The religious folks in the room were implored to do most of the musical heavy lifting. We did our best. And the words drifted around the atrium as the wind picked up outside.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. The blessings of life and love and so much more besides. For these do indeed have a source. Blessings and bless-ees imply a bless-er.

Praise him all creatures here below. The rocks and the trees, the forests and field, the oceans and mountains. And human beings. These magnificent worms that can’t seem to stop reaching out in spite of ourselves, reaching out, hopefully, beyond death.


Image above taken from the 2021-22 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is called “Pinnacle Lake,” by Jane Tanner. My recently departed friend loved the mountains and all the magnificent creatures it contained.

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