My granddaughter was just a little girl and I was well into my seventies when we had a conversation that got me to thinking seriously about death. Of course, death was nothing new to me, but I had never given it much thought, except as a loss to surviving family and friends. This is how it happened.
We went for a walk in the cemetery near my home, a walk that we often took when Courtney was visiting. She was perhaps seven at the time, young enough so that I was surprised that she could do the arithmetic as fast as she did, in order to calculate how old people had been when they died. Our first visit was to the grave of someone whom I had known well and whom Courtney had known slightly. A little further on, we stopped to peer into a very elaborate crypt. It was so dark inside that we couldn’t see anything through the small openings, but we speculated as to what must be in there. I had to confess that I really didn’t know the exact details.
In the older part of the cemetery she noticed that there would often be the markers for two or more women who were identified as the wives of the one man at the site. She asked for an explanation of that, and I told her that in that time many women didn’t live very long lives, that they either died in childbirth or had so many children that it destroyed their health. We also talked about the difference in medical practice from that day to our day, which meant that many people died of diseases which today we are able to treat successfully. She followed that up with a question about the many babies and young children who lay in the cemetery, and I was able to explain that to her. There is a small building at the edge of the cemetery, used to store tools for the care of the grounds and probably for digging the graves. I asked Courtney if she knew what that building was used for. Without hesitation she replied that it was used to refrigerate the bodies until burial. Where did that come from? Maybe it was once true, but not in my memory.
Somehow we got into the subject of cremation, and Courtney wanted my opinion on that practice. I shared my thoughts on the matter with her. At the time I felt that what happens after a person dies is for the survivors and therefore I was planning to leave it up to my family to decide all the particulars. Since then, I have changed my mind, but at the time Courtney seemed to take my explanation in stride. Then the zinger that got me thinking. She said, “I think I would like to be buried, because then there would be something of me left.” That was the end of the conversation that day. We continued on our walk, turning our attention more to the lovely, sunny day, to the flowers, and to the bird songs. For me, though, that remark by my little granddaughter so many years ago led me to think about death in a different way, raising in my mind a whole series of questions which I have pondered off and on ever since.
What is death, anyway? What exactly is left after the body dies? I don’t now, nor have I ever believed in the idea of a place in the sky called Heaven. Nor do I believe in a fiery furnace designated as Hell or purgatory. I think those ideas, like many others in the Christian Bible, as well as in the sacred books of other religions, were created in ancient times to explain the mysteries of life and death which were in a sense unexplainable. Parts of the Old Testament are based on historical events, passed down by word of mouth through many generations until they were eventually written down. The New Testament contains much historical truth, but also many stories created to explain the unexplainable. It makes for interesting reading, often supplying guidelines for living one’s life if one is willing to dig deep enough to find it, but not necessarily to be taken literally. In some religions, perhaps most, that makes me a heretic. It still leaves us with the question, what is left after the body dies? I believe that what is left has at least two aspects. One is our DNA if we happen to have descendants. The other is what individuals whom we touched during our lifetime remember of us. Now that I am in my ninetieth year I often am reminded by family and others of the ways in which my life has influenced theirs. What they tell me is almost always favorable, but there are ways not so good that could be told by some who don’t speak up. How does the idea of the soul fit into this thinking? I’m not sure. I do know that I don’t fear my own death. Like everyone else, I hope not to become a burden to my children, and I hope to avoid a long, painful death. I even approve of the idea of ending one’s life voluntarily, but I’m not at all sure I would be able to do that myself. I cringe at the various euphemisms that are used to avoid the word dying. Passing is one I particularly dislike. Passing to what?
Thoughts about dying inevitably lead to thoughts about living. How are life and death different? There are uncounted ways that are clearly visible, but does that mean that once our physical body shuts down that’s the end of us forever? Courtney’s remark that burial would ensure that there would be something of her left made me think about what is left, if anything, after one dies. If one accepts the idea that a part of what is left is the memories that our survivors have of us, and our influence on their lives, that is a pretty strong incentive to live a life that will encourage them to be the best they can be. For me that is a stronger incentive than the promise of an eternity in Heaven or punishment in Hell.
So what is the purpose of life? The idea of a supreme being who directs the course of life, whether of an individual life or all of life as we know it, even of the universe, may be a comforting answer to some, but it leaves me with more questions than answers. It has not seemed hard to me to understand what I should do with my one life, but I can’t seem to get much further than that. The purpose of my life has been to nurture my family and to do what I can to be of some small help to those with whom I come in contact, knowing that any one individual can’t accomplish much, but if everyone would try to do his/her bit to make the world a good place, we would all be living in a more caring place than is now the case. That’s where I get stuck. Why is it that individuals can work for the good of all, but that the human race doesn’t behave that way? You can hear me getting confused.
The phrase “out of the mouths of babes. . .” comes to my mind. Who would have thought that a remark by a seven-year-old child would have triggered a search for the deepest meanings of life and death? My own children don’t like to discuss death with me, particularly when it has anything to do with my death, so I have tended to push such thoughts to the back of my mind. My grandchild, however, in her innocence and her natural child’s curiosity, opened my mind to thoughts which up to that time I had pretty much ignored.