Every week, I ride my bicycle to a cemetery fifteen minutes away. I don’t go there to hunt for ghosts or genealogical purposes. Rather, I go there to meditate on death and pray for those that are buried there.
The first time I went to a cemetery was at the age of five. My maternal grandmother, Elena, had died from leukemia some forty days before and my mother took me to the grave site. To this day, I remember the quiet of the cemetery and the chirping of the birds. I can still see the crude imitation of Michelangelo’s Pieta at its entrance and the granite of my grandmother’s grave, the smell of beeswax candles burning in the soil, and the flowers that had been left on top of the stone.
My grandmother’s death was sudden and quick. The leukemia set in during the middle of February and she was gone by the beginning of April. It was an agonizing death in which her organs literally burned inside her. During each one of those forty days, my mother was at my grandmother’s side at the hospital. Everybody knew tacitly that there was nothing that they could do for her. She died early in the morning on April 3, 1989, abandoned and alone.
During all of that time, I was blissfully unaware that anything was wrong. I still went and visited my grandmother’s second husband and spent the afternoons with him. I still came home and saw my mother. My life went on as normally as it could possibly be. But then came the sudden realization that she was gone when a life-size portrait of my grandmother’s face appeared in my step-grandfather’s study. Then came the visits to the cemetery. I realized at the age of five that I would never see her again.
That death was the beginning of what became a procession. As the years went by, my awareness of death also grew. At my old church, memorial services were ordinary occurrences. Almost every Sunday, there would be a service for some person who had died. In the beginning, they were people that I had never met or heard of, but as the years moved forward death claimed people that I had known well.
One of them was a Russian woman named Dina who attended our church. I remember her particularly well because of her regal bearing and the way in which she held herself. She was not like the other old women at our church. She seemed like a relic from some vanished world.
With the passage of time, I could see her head and hands beginning to shake. Eventually, the shaking got so bad that she quit going to church. She was too embarrassed of her Parkinson’s disease. Around that time, I called her and asked if she wanted someone to come and talk to her from time to time. She brusquely refused and told me to buzz off. I continued to pray for her health.
Then I read in the church bulletin that she had died. I felt like I had been hit in the head with a brick. I could not believe that Dina was gone. Something told me that it was a bad joke. Eventually, I made my peace with her death as I did with those of other people. However, I still remember that initial shock. That feeling of complete and utter desolation.
Another person that death claimed was a man named Peter. He was a true Renaissance man. Musician, member of the Toast Makers Society, an outdoorsman with a love for homesteading and farming, an upstanding member of his church, he was someone that people looked up to and loved.
In a life that had spanned only fifty-three years, he had managed to squeeze in it enough adventures for an entire book. There had been the years he had spent in Bosnia working with refugees, the classes he took at St. Vladimir’s Seminary from Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, and the later years of married life in Idaho. He had also suffered from colon cancer which had been in remission, but it came back some ten years later.
Rather than look at it as a death sentence, Peter did everything he could to prepare himself for that end. He ordered a funeral shroud from Jerusalem, took up alternative remedies, and somehow managed to miraculously recover by Pascha. He gave me a full score of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony and an autographed picture of the Leningrad Philharmonic merely because I had listened to some tapes.
His death did not come to me as a shock, but it came nevertheless. I remember attending his funeral and serving it as an altar boy. I remember how his lifeless body lay in a coffin surrounded beeswax candles. His entire face showed he had made his peace with death and God. Like St. John Chrysostom, he too could cry out, “O death, where is thy sting? O death, where is thy victory?” Even today, I think of him as a saint although he may never be publicly canonized.
We live in a culture in which death is both glorified and swept under the rug. Hundreds and thousands of babies are butchered every day in the name of expediency in this country. We have grow so desensitized to death and violence that we merely let them die. The same thing happens with euthanasia. We glorify death by not being sensitive enough to see what it is.
Yet we also sweep death under the rug. Our culture believes that pleasure and sensuality are probably the best ways for a man to live. Suffering is something that is alien to our culture. We send those who suffer away so that we don’t see them. The mentally ill go to institutions, while the elderly are sent to nursing homes. They become invisible and so they are. We don’t think about them because we don’t see them
In our cemeteries, there is the same sense of death being swept under the rug. Few people go and visit cemeteries in this country. Few people plant flowers or American flags next to the head stones of their loved ones. Indeed, there are so many graves which are abandoned. So many souls for whom nobody has prayed in years.
Yet death is perhaps the most important event in our lives after our birth. With the passage of every minute and every day, we are drawn inexorably toward the grave. When we die, we will see God and then what kind of account will we make for what we have done with the one life that He gave us? What will we tell Him and how will we account for ourselves? The truth is right there and it determines your eternal destiny. Where you or I will go after our body decays depends on how we live this life.
It may seem paradoxical or morbid to some, but the Desert Fathers frequently slept in coffins to remind themselves of death. By facing death, they were forced to live better and more righteous lives. It was the face of death that converted St. Francis Borgia to pursue a religious life. It was the death of her husband and children that freed St. Rita to become a nun. St. Maria Gorreti’s death is what her converted her murderer. Great saints have been created by meditating on death and the four last things.
Yet in our world, we are often told that death and sin do not exist. We are told that we should live complacently and enjoy God’s gifts here and in eternity. Yet the truth is that every action and thought in this life determines our destiny. Every unconfessed sin only makes the stone around our necks larger. If we do not face death, then how will we deal with it when our number is called? How will we look at God when we see Him face to face? I shudder to think of my own eternal destiny.
Therefore, let us make a resolution to live better from this day forward. Let us meditate on death and see the things that it teaches. With that awareness that we may be called any day and at any hour, we should live as though every day as if it were our last remembering constantly that this earth is not our home and that our true home is with God in heaven.
Eternal rest grant unto them and let perpetual light shine upon them! May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.