The Holy Task of Recording the Dead | Sojourners

The Holy Task of Recording the Dead

Keeping a "death scroll" can remind us of our human right to mourn and memorialize loved ones.
An illustration of an open scroll with swirling, sandy textures across its blank page.
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IN THE EARLY days of the pandemic, I started a death scroll. Not to be confused with “doomscrolling” (a malady related to one’s smartphone), my death scroll was a physical length of paper on which I penned names and death dates as I learned of them.

Across the top I scrawled: “Blessed are you, Lord Our God, Who Is Keeper of the Book of Life. Today, we learned that Sister Death called ...” On March 13, 2020, I wrote the first name: Barbara Clementine Harris. A towering figure in the American church, Harris registered Black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s, marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and was one of the first 11 women “irregularly” ordained as Episcopal priests in 1974 and the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion. But, because of the COVID lockdown, no churchwide memorial service was held for her.

Pandemics bring death. And, as Christians, it’s impressed upon us to remember. Remember the Sabbath. Remember that your ancestors were slaves in Egypt. Do this in remembrance of me. Remember my chains. But ... I have a very bad memory. So, I made the scroll. When I stopped collecting names in late 2022, my scroll held 36. How many names would your scroll hold?

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