All Saints Day. While it’s a holy day that has been pretty much drowned out by the commercial excesses of Halloween, I think its significance transcends its ancient Christian roots and speaks to everyone.
At the Lutheran church I attend here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we honored the parishioners who died over the past year. Similar ceremonies occurred today at thousands of churches across America, as names were read and bells of remembrance were tolled.
Death is a natural part of life, although we Americans are pretty good at keeping it mostly hidden from sight except in the violent abstraction of movies and TV.
But if you happened to attend a church on the first Sunday in November you are likely to have encountered the reading of the names of those no longer among the living.
Four of the names I heard today were women taken this past year by cancer. They were friends. They each fought the good fight that battling cancer seems to induce in most of us. Particularly Merrybeth, who courageously fought uterine cancer for more than eight years and endured more courses of chemo than men twice her size and weight would likely survive. Her unquenchable good cheer and her deep connection to God, whom she knew loved her, inspired us all until she drew her final breath just a few months ago.
There’s no All Saints rule that says we should remember only those who died this past year. So, today revived my own memories of the men who have died of the disease that lurks within me: advanced prostate cancer. There was Bill, whom I knew well and stood watch at his deathbed. And Dave, Trip, and Don, all of whom I met only briefly. And then the men at my advanced prostate cancer Internet group I’ve never met face-to-face: John, Connie Mack, and others.
Lung cancer will kill almost 160,000 American men and women in 2013. Breast cancer will take another 39,000 women, and more than 29,000 men will die of prostate cancer. The American Cancer Society says that about 1600 men and women will die of cancer each day of the year. That’s more than one death a minute, 24 hours a day.
But the problem with all these enormous numbers is that we really can’t get our minds around them. Statistics and numbers are an abstraction; they are not people.
But Carol, Diane, Doris, Merrybeth. Dave, Trip, Don, Bill, John, Connie Mack. It is in the naming of names—as on All Saints Sunday—that remind us that these were real people who just a little while ago were among us. And their names also remind us of our own mortality.
It is names, not numbers, that we can get our minds around.
In my quotidian life as a cancer survivor, I tend to forget about mortality. Mine or anyone else’s. Until All Saints Sunday and we hear—and remember—those names of flesh and blood people who walked where we walk now.
Only then do the numbers and statistics become truly real—and truly appalling.