Theresa Carr was praised for her daring, outrageousness, and creativity in the name of causes ranging from gay rights to nuclear disarmament.
Then, as part of a Tibetan Buddhist end-of-life ceremony, her lifelong partner lit the corner of her photo, chanting “Namo, Amitabhaya, Hri” until the image was burned to a cinder.
Carr, who was also a carpenter and a naturalist, died on Thursday at the age of 59 after a two-year battle with breast cancer. In accordance with Tibetan Buddhism, which she embraced five years ago.
The center’s senior teacher, Frank Ryan (pictured), said Carr’s body was watched over for three days.
That’s because in Buddhist thought, some quality of “mind” may still be retained in the physical body for that period of time. Her body was cremated Tuesday morning.
The final stage of the Buddhist farewell was about to unfold as participants entered the brightly decorated and incense-filled shrine room of the center. They sat down on mats and pillows before the altar, where Carr’s photograph was set beside a small vase of flowers.
Click on the play arrow to see the symbolic transition of Carr on to, in Buddhist thought, the next state of her journey.
Before the ceremony and after, people shared memories of Carr, a proud lesbian activist who let her facial hair grow.
It seemed only natural that toward the end of her life she embraced the faith that is committed to supporting what Buddhist doctrine calls “all sentient beings.”
“We threatened to send Theresa to a yoga retreat” decades ago, recalled one colleague from the pioneering New Haven Women’s Liberation Center. ” She thought that hilarious, absolutely ridiculous. Plus ca change ...”
Joan Cavanagh (pictured) and others recalled Carr’s participation in a group called Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide (SONG) during the 1980s. Once they paddled out to protest the launching of new nuclear submarines in Groton. On one occasion SONG, with Carr in the lead, showed up sprinkling a combination of glitter and creamed corn to evoke radiation sickness.
“She was very creative about props and theater,” said Cavanagh, who most recently worked with the Greater New Haven Labor History Association on a pioneering exhibition on the history of the Winchester Rifle Factory.
In Carr’s memory, Cavanagh read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Conscientious Objector,” which contains these lines:
I shall die, but that is all I should do for Death
... I am not on his payroll.
Activists Paula and Frank Panzarella recalled Carr’s work protesting the United States’ meddling in Nicaragua in the 1980s, working on campaigns for Puerto Rican independence, and helping to form the New Haven Coalition for Justice in El Salvador.
If you ended up arrested and in a cell with Carr, she’d be the one to climb up to remove the batteries or somehow disable the surveillance camera above you, another friend recalled.
One of her oldest friends, Steve Rowley, was an undergraduate with her at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1970s, where Carr created what was called “the liberation corridor.”
“She was a Marxist-Leninist lesbian; this was new to the world at the time. I was in awe of her. She was incredibly bright. She had the power to influence people without being condescending,” Rowley said.
On Tuesday it was time, in Buddhist practice, to let her go with finality. Though there is no real finality in Buddhist thought, Ryan added.
First Ryan led participants in a tonglen exercise. On the in-breath they evoked Carr and how they connected with her. On the out-breath they sent her love, compassion, or insight and extended it toward her.
Tonglen is “empathy and love through space,” Ryan said.
Then he lit the candles on the shrine and struck the gong, the reverberating sound symbolic of the never-endingness of the Buddhist’s concept of the mind’s journey.
The sukhavati ceremony concluded with the lighting of the photograph—a stark symbol of the key Buddhist notion of impermanence—and the chanting of “namo, amitabhaya, hri.”
Those words mean “right now,” “compassion,” and “go forth,” according to Ryan’s translation.
After the service, Carr’s life partner Alessandra Nichols led a group down to the Mill River, where the ashes from Carr’s photograph were to be tossed on the water.
Another friend and protege, Jennifer Miller (pictured), said Carr’s archives, including flyers and materials pertaining to the New Haven Women’s Liberation Center and SONG, are being sent to the Sophia Smith Collection, the archive of women’s history at Smith College.
“She knew,” Miller said, “it was important to understand history.”