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Go Down, Death – 10/30/2016

James Weldon Johnson was a lawyer and an activist and a diplomat, and also one of the great poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his most famous works is a collection of poems called, “God’s Trombones,” which attempted to capture the style of preaching he heard growing up in a black church in Jacksonville, FL. That title – God’s Trombones – comes from the voices of the preachers he heard in church, which seemed able to express and to amplify the full range of human emotion; just like a trombone. In one of the passages in his book, Johnson paints a picture of a God who reigns as a king in heaven; a king who watches over each of his earthly subjects, and takes a keen interest in each one. He writes,

Day before yesterday morning,

God was looking down from his great, high heaven

Looking down on all his children,

And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,

Tossing on her bed of pain.

And God’s big heart was touched with pity,

With the everlasting pity.


And God sat back on his throne,

And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:

Call me Death!

And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice

That broke like a clap of thunder:

Call Death! — Call Death!

And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven

Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,

Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.


And Death heard the summons,

And he leaped on his fastest horse,

Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.

Up the golden street Death galloped,

And the hoofs of his horse struck fire from the gold,

But they didn’t make no sound.

Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,

And waited for God’s command.


And God said: Go down, Death, go down,

Go down to Savannah, Georgia,

Down in Yamacraw,

And find Sister Caroline.

She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,

She’s labored long in my vineyard,

And she’s tired —

She’s weary —

Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

On this Sunday, each year, we gather to remember those whom we have loved and lost. And that can’t help but to make this a solemn occasion: in every death there is loss, and sorrow, and grief. But there can also be relief in death: the prospect of rest from a hard life, or simply a long one, well-lived. Every life is different, and so not every life has to bare the same degree of struggle or pain. The gift of being alive, of having the privilege to experience the world we share, and be a part of it – that makes the hard parts worth it. But when life ends, the labor of it does too. Yet still, whatever it was that we accomplished in our too-short time here continues further on without the need or benefit of our toil. It passes to those who loved us and knew us. The work of their hands carries us on, as the memory of us persists in those who continue the effort and live to savor its fruits.

The neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman put out a book several years ago called “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.” In it, he offers forty different possible versions of the afterlife, a bit like James Weldon Johnson offered his. In one of these forty little stories, he imagines that after we die, we go on to a mundane but spacious location, “like an infinite airport waiting area.” There’s coffee and tea, and efficient fluorescent lighting. Everyone is actually there to wait to pass on to the real, final afterlife, about which nothing is known, other than the assurance that it is much nicer than its antechamber.

The dead only move along into their final state when someone on earth says their name for the last time. This might mean very little waiting at all, or it might take an extremely long time. The vast room has an exaggerated ratio of famous people to more anonymous folks, because anyone who can manage to get their name into the history books can expect to be sitting on the moderately comfortable chairs for a very long time. The folks who have the hardest time in this arrangement are the ones who are remembered for the wrong sorts of reasons, by people who never knew them or particularly cared for them. Eagleman gives the example of a farmer whose farm became the site of a small liberal arts school after his death. Every week the tour guides mention his name in the course of their duties, connecting him to a school he knows nothing about and cares nothing for, causing him linger on. But if a person remains known on earth for who they were in life, the experience of waiting isn’t bad at all, no matter how long it is.

That is what we owe to the ones we love, we who live on after them. To remember them kindly, and honestly. To take wisdom, inspiration, courage – all that we can, really – from the experience of having known them. They have passed on into the rest beyond death; the work, however, continues. It is up to us to do it, so that the memory of them might continue to shape the world of which they were and will always have been a part.

A few years ago, the radio journalist Scott Simon sat with his mother in the hospital, accompanying her through her final days of life. With her participation and blessing, he cataloged the experience on Twitter, typing out short little snippets of their time together. In one of those tweets, he records the following:

Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?”

She means pain, dread.


She says, “But we’ll go on forever, you & me.”


Nothing in this world lasts forever, and eventually the joys of life end together with its hardships. But there is, never the less, and no matter what formula for an afterlife we do or do not entertain, a sense of the eternal in the communion we share with the people we love. Long after they, and we, are gone, it will continue to echo through the universe.


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Beverly, MA 01915


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