Do you remember when you first realized that you would eventually die? I do. Each summer, my family visited my great aunt’s cottage on Christie Lake in southwest Michigan. Sometimes my sisters and I were left there with our grandmother for the week. Besides swimming in the lake and playing cards, there wasn’t much to do, so Grandma and I would take long walks together.
The lake was surrounded by farms of golden wheat that in late summer would sway in the wind, and the landscape became concentric circles of blue, green, and gold. Our path ended at an old, small cemetery and, as the years passed, the path’s ending—always bringing me to the graveyard—became for me a working metaphor about life itself. Each walk came to represent my journey toward my own path’s end, my own demise. I moved from the middle blue of the lake, through the green of life (the woods), to the ethereal gold, gained through grave.
This cemetery was different from the cemeteries I saw in Chicago. Those are huge and set off from the rest of town, making them rather impersonal. I never left those kind of cemeteries—after visiting my grandpas’ tombstones, for example—with a sense of my own death. But the small cemetery by Christie Lake sure brought it home.
It had only a few tombstones, from the nineteenth century, which, as a kid, I thought was ages past. Some tombstones had the names of children who had lived only a few years, making me grateful for my own. Families were grouped together, making it seem as if that was the end of the family line. All things pass away. And I will too. The thought was profound in late summer. Daylight was decreasing, as was the time left in my life.
When Grandma would walk with me, I saw another sort of foreshadowing of my own death as the wrinkles on her face showed in all their glory when she laughed at me and my goofiness. She would tell me stories about her husband, my grandpa, whom I never met. He died a few years before I was born from a heart attack. The pain from his loss was still fresh for her, but I wanted to know as much as I could about him, and so she would talk and share, though I didn’t understand, then, how much longing belongs to memory. I think, now, that perhaps these walks to the cemetery helped her in her grief; helped her to come to terms with her own mortality.
As we stood on the cemetery grounds, I sensed the sacredness of the place. Below me were the mortal remains of generations past—unique, unduplicatable people—who each lived a life different from my own, and each face their own death. I would die, too, I came to know, and my death would be uniquely my own. The fear of nothingness sent a shiver down my spine.
Next to the cemetery was an abandoned farm house, a relic of another age, with an unkempt garden. Perhaps it would be revitalized one day, I’d muse, picturing it. But the thought that a family used to live in that house, filling it with the usual joys and sorrows of family life, made me wonder if perhaps in the future Christie Lake, with all its cottages and festive summers, would eventually be abandoned and dilapidated too, like the house. Eden might be lost but the hope for a new Eden remained. I walked through the cemetery, sensing the presence of God.
In the cemetery was a cross and words about the Resurrection. “Remember Me, Lord” was engraved on one of the tombstones, which made me ponder what my words would be as I took my last breath, if I had the grace of a good death. I could not think of a better verse: “Lord Jesus, remember me as you come into your kingdom.” As I age I think, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner” would be good, too, in light of how much I need him. Given that death can come at any moment, I’d hope the words could become part of my breath itself like the Jesus Prayer is for many monks. But the cemetery reminded me that it is in Christ’s death that I partake. My death finds its meaning in his. Perhaps that is why most tombstones were in the shape of the cross.
This long pandemic has reminded me of those summers, my first real thoughts of death. I have not personally known anyone who has died of the virus, but I know that many are experiencing great loss, and it’s hard to find words that speak to it all. Perhaps silence is suitable. But my sense is that many of us are thinking about that moment of death. Hopefully, we will place our trust in the Lord, and as we take our last breath we breathe out everything that we are, all of what was given to us at our births, giving it back as a gift to the Lord who will raise us on the last day.
My walk to the cemetery was the beginning of a life in philosophy. In the Phaedo, Socrates says, “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” Memento mori ordered my soul and pointed me to those things that make life worth living. Perhaps this Lent we should “practice for dying and death” so as to truly love, and live in the new life of Easter.
After our cemetery walks, I always felt renewed, ready to jump into the lake. It was like a renewal of Baptism for me: passing through death and into new life, thanks to Christie Lake! After swimming in its waters into the late evening, I would find myself a wooden raft and rest on it, to simply wonder at the beauty of existence of everything, myself, and all creation, and everything that had come before or would come after.
The contemplation of death is a prerequisite for truly living. But let’s go further and say that participation in Christ’s death is the prerequisite for partaking in resurrected life. May walking the path of Lent bring you to such a joyful end.