Death and doubts

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?

5 Responses to “Death and doubts”

  1. 1 rjlight February 12, 2007 at 4:24 am

    In my frustration with religion I have never given up on God, which is good, because He will never give up on me. When I was young, I decided that I wanted God (Jesus) with me on my journey in life. I decided we would do this thing together. There were so many times when my parents fighting drove me crazy, and I would sit on my back porch and talk to God. He always showed up for the conversation and He always comforted me. He was my mom and dad when they couldn’t be. Other times I have been furious with Him and I have yelled at Him in anger. He listens and eventually calms me and reminds me that it will be okay. He has given me money when I desperately needed it in ways I could have never imagined and has brought me answers to difficult questions. How? This is part of the mystery of God. It isn’t audible in that others can hear–but I can hear Him. It’s like a sister or close friend that you have and sometimes you just know what they are thinking before they say it. That is this connection I have with God. My husband has a different connection, and God speaks to him in different ways because his journey with God is different than my journey. This mystery, not religion, is what keeps me sane and grounded. I don’t have to know the answer to everything because I know my journey partner does and that is good enough most of the time.Your journey with God is also different. When you meditate are focusing on one thing and just asking God to speak to you? For example just focusing on “God is Love” and then asking Him to speak to you? Just a thought–I hope I have been clear and have not belittled your frustrations in any way.

  2. 2 Alien Drums February 12, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    When my first-born son died years ago I experienced what I had heard about — a peace that passed understanding. I remember sitting on the porch that day with my two little daughters explaining that Mommy would not be bringing home their little brother. “He was born with some problems and just couldn’t make it.” I struggled for words that would work for them. The 14 hours of my son’s life were probably the most important of my life. I held his hand. I talked to him. I cried. I prayed. But as I sat on that swing with my daughters, I felt a peace.

    Now, I really hadn’t planned to write the rest of this, but I’m going to do a Paul Harvey and tell the rest of the story. A few months later my wife was reading her Bible or a devotional book in our bedroom and she suddenly felt that Jesus was in the room with her in a way that she had never felt before. She didn’t hear spoken words with her ears, but her mind heard this message, “Before Tyler’s first birthday, you will give birth to another son.” She didn’t know it then, but she already was pregnant. Three-hundred and sixty-four days after Tyler’s birth, our second son was born — one day before Tyler’s first birthday.

    I simply find that amazing. Thanks, Holly, for letting me go back to those days.

  3. 3 tobeme February 14, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    I don’t have a story to share at the moment.
    Death is a mystrey this is true. I do believe that it is simply the end of our human form and the begining of another form. I often think of death as a baby being born. A baby, inside the mother is fully taken care of, comfortable, loved … who would want to leave that enviroment. I imagine being born is much like dying, leaving where we find comfort to enter some cold unknown place.

  4. 4 Shane Vander Hart February 15, 2007 at 7:13 am

    When my grandmother who had battled cancer for many years approached her end she had anxiety, but was comforted by the knowledge that she would meet with Jesus when she entered the next life.

    Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.”

    That is where my grandmother’s hope and peace came from, and where my hope lies as well. I don’t have to fear death because of Jesus.

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