I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned on this blog that I live across the street from a cemetery.
For me, when I bought this house, the cemetery was a selling point. I’ll spare you the jokes about how the neighbors are quiet, and just say that aside from the permanent green space and the automatically plentiful parking, a cemetery is a beautiful place. I’ve had people complain that they take up too much space and are wasteful, and I admit I’d like to be cremated myself, but the beautiful is as useful as the useful – sometimes more so (hat tip: Victor Hugo in Les Miserables).
Cemeteries are also much more lively than I ever would have expected. I walk through the cemetery in summer quite a lot, and so do many other people from the neighborhood. One evening I was asked if I had seen a pet parrot flying around. (I hadn’t, although I wish.) The occasional forbidden dog runs through until his or her owners catch up. In the winter, clouds of crows flap about among the trees, and they seem to enjoy the cliche of sitting on top of the more decorative tombstones. In the fall, the geese congregate in the space where all the stones are flush with the ground, and they strut about, feeding and honking and flapping and resettling. I’ve looked out my living room window to see full-fledge goose battles in progress. Did you know a goose can break your arm with its wings? They apparently have a mean streak, and when they get crabby, they whack at each other like they were chopping wood or something.
But of course, a cemetery is also a fine place to confront the realities of death.
Some of the stones have been there for nearly 150 years. They’re crumbling but readable – memorials to firefighters who were older than my grandmother, World War I veterans, nuns who died fifty years before I was born. Forgetting about death is a daily occurrence with most people, including me, but when you read “1915-1957, Beloved father,” it isn’t an option. I don’t like thinking about death, but I do like thinking about using my time wisely, since the end of life here in this world is as final as granite.
And sometimes unexpected.
In a cemetery of hundreds of old and intricately decorative tombstones, one stands out in this one. It sits off by itself on a slight hill, with no trees or other stones to crowd it. It’s a large granite bench, on which sits a person-sized granite angel, whose head is bent over a book. A poem is etched into the bench, but it’s been awhile since I walked past it so I can’t quote it.
The stone is for a young woman who died suddenly in 2004 at the age of 20. I don’t know what she died of; all the paper says is “natural causes.” (I would rather not use her name. I don’t know what, if any, effect it might have on her family to see her discussed here, or if it would have any consequence for any of them. But out of a sincere wish to avoid causing any pain or unintended consequences, and a respect for the family’s loss, I think I’ll avoid specifics.)
When I first saw the angel, a plant with hundreds of purple-pink flowers that cascaded all the way to the ground sat next to her. In the fall, the plant disappeared, and near Halloween a pumpkin took its place. Now an evergreen wreath leans against her knees. I imagine her family – usually her mother – coming to visit, talking to her, trying to find a way to live with the cruelty of having her snatched away from them so suddenly and so soon.
Death is the ultimate mystery and for me, the ultimate fear. Agnosticism is no comfort when thinking about death, but neither are the limitations of the world’s faiths. Ultimately, death really and truly is a mystery and no matter what the faiths say, it feels like guesswork to me.
I think this is on my mind because so far, I may or may not have found a spiritual discipline that works for me but other than the occasional random moments in nature that I’ve already described, I haven’t felt the presence of God much in my life and I’m finding it frustrating. I talk to others who have felt it and I find it hard to believe, if only because I find it hard to imagine for myself. They meditate or go to faith healers or other kinds of healers or pray and find themselves in that presence. I meditate or pray and I can’t shut myself up.
Here’s what I’d like: Stories from you. Fire away. How have you solved a problem or gotten through a bad time, and how has God shown up to help?