Is it better to die young or old? Isn’t it true that when we hear of a young person or a child who dies we feel it to be terribly tragic? On my travels this past summer I visited my dead relatives in a forgotten cemetery surrounded by state forest where the trees are planted in far more uniform lines than the grave stones.
An uncle of mine was the cemetery sexton over a century ago who’s job it was to dig the holes when the ground was thawed for burial of the little community’s dead. In his neat 19th century script he kept records of the friends and family he helped to bury for a fee, making sure to note who had paid and who had not.
My grandfather (4x) was all paid up in 1860. In that same year his four-year-old son had died and his married daughter too. On my summer trip I met distant cousins who made a picnic for us by the pond so when we went to the cemetery I wasn’t really able to soak it in as much as I would have liked (though meeting my cousins and feeling instantly attached to them made up for the little disappointment).
I made sure to take a solitary trip in the fall to commune with my dead. People talk of soul mates but do they talk of soul places? The place my soul is drawn to is a bleak and beautiful county in Upstate New York. If I could live beside the cemetery I would be quite pleased.
On this second trip, with the wind causing the pines to whisper all around, not a soul stirred for a mile. So much of the county is deserted now and all of my family farm land is owned by the grabby hands of the state. All of the woods chopped by my New England ancestors are back to “forest” though there is hardly a wild feel to these managed rows.
Back to the dead.
I entered the cemetery through the opening in the rock wall that surrounds the place. Once an iron banner stood over the entranceway, but someone had carried it away for their antiques collection or had destroyed it for fun. Nobody knows. The stones stood white for over a century until acid rain became a thing and turned the limestone black.
And still I avoid talking of the dead — though I have no fear of death because of the very people I came to visit. As the wind picked up and the loneliness of the place heightened my awareness of the longing I always have to time travel I found my grandfather’s stone. My grandmother’s had broken in two and lay beside her husband’s.
No one believed way back then that this grandfather would keep the faith after his conversion but he did and made sure that his stone would declare this faith with the Holy Bible carved at the very top. He had one made for his wife and even his adult daughter. Of course in a God-fearing community of Baptists the style of stone could have been the basic model, but not everyone in the cemetery have such stones.
My aunt (4x) and even the sexton who was her husband are buried close by, but little Jesse, my Grandfather’s son who died at the age of four, lies close beside his grandfather’s stone. Jesse’s stone is ornate in comparison to many of the others and has a long and hard-to-read epitaph. I knelt before it in the moist grass and scratched the moss from the stone to get a better look. Much of the epitaph has been worn away but there are words about eternity, sorrow and love.
What is the most tragic age to die?
Is it even a tragedy? As a mother of adult children I still pray that I die before my children do, yet I totally believe in the eternity of souls. I was thinking the other day that a long life carries with it far more suffering than a short one. I was reminded of this idea when reading The Brother’s Karamazov:
“Add to that that he was to some extent a youth of our last epoch — that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything , life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices …”
This is not to say a child is seeking after all of this. The cuteness of children, the holy innocence of them is maybe why we hate their loss the most and miss them more terribly (if that is true and I’m not certain) amidst this worldly corruption. When young men and women (but still mostly men) sacrifice themselves for causes and wars the thing is terrible, but glorified. But to live on and die an average age, to experience the death of others, to be diagnosed with disease, to fail at work, to be stuck in deep depression or chronic pain … most of these things are reserved for the middle-aged and the elderly.
In the Catholic Church it is not a sin to talk to redeemed souls, to ask after them, and to beg them to pray before God’s throne for us. We can also pray for them. This absolutely thrills me. I’m in no hurry to die, but I long for the day when I will meet generations of family.
I feel strengthened especially by those who lived long and hard lives, who learned things from deep suffering and carried on with mystic purpose. In ways that I can’t explain, I feel especially close to some of my dead. I know and have experienced signs that we loved each other deeply in another place. Some people would say it’s a coping mechanism or the product of an active imagination, but the older I get the more I feel it’s true and the less I worry about the end.
Have you ever been in touch with dead souls? Let me know in the comments!
18 responses to “Is There a Perfect Age to Die?”
Adrienne, the first question is probably going to meet with many , it is more natural to die old than young, life is very precious and as very young you never got to live your gift.
I do understand your peaceful walking at the grave yard and I will do the same even where I don’t know of the people. There is a quietness and stillness that is mysterious. Also, you can read inscriptions and learn about the family and the those who gone.
I love that people in the past had picnics in cemeteries. Maybe they had a better sense that their dead were close by.
Watching a child grow is definitely a gift for parents! But then when they’re grown you find that you worry about them even more! LOL. I want to live for a long time because I love life, but I’m becoming less afraid of death. I agree that we all have a very precious gift.
So many things in this post — but I’ll just reply to a couple.
I think of Hamlet’s “There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.” In other words, we linger because we fear what comes next. That said, since the Bible speaks of death as an enemy, then avoiding facing the enemy seems reasonable. My mom is 93, has dementia, can hardly walk, and has other issues, but still says “I love life.” (Though she loves it best of all when I pick her up and take her out to eat.) So death is always the enemy, but one that will ultimately be defeated.
As for talking to the dead–not in any real sense of the word. That said, I’ll still wave when I drive past the cemetery where my father is buried and occasionally tell him I love him, even though he has been gone for 17 years. I don’t believe he can talk to me, but there are verses in the Bible that suggest that those who are in heaven do know what is happening on earth. But interesting observations on the impact of visiting your deceased forebears. It’s always nice to have a history. Glad you’ve had a meaningful time connecting with your past.
In a way I don’t feel like we are connecting to the past but connecting to eternity.
My father came to me in a very vivid dream on my birthday one year (when I had forgotten my birthday). He brought me coffee and Dunkin Donuts — something he always did for people at random times. 😉
My brother’s wife came to him as well and assured him that she was happy and with her father. My brother had felt a lot of guilt over the way their life together ended but she came to tell him it was okay. My brother said he didn’t sleep for a week after the visitation. It was as if he was supernaturally energized. So many mysterious things!
I’m glad to here that your mother still enjoys life. There is quite a lot to like about it despite the bad stuff.
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Yes — like a diamond in a blender — moving too fast, a bit crazy, but still valuable. 🙂
And when you mention the dream, it reminds me of a vision I had once (waking). So my grandparents, all in white and busy adoring God, but still aware of my presence and radiating love. So we can definitely connect with eternity. But when I say connecting with the past, I’m thinking of the gravestones. Those are temporal, people are eternal.
I’ve always had trouble imagining worshiping God 24/7 but obviously I lack in that level of understanding. 🙂
Love your vision though.
This is a beautiful post. I’ve spent hours in old cemeteries and find them peaceful. I always feel sad looking at the stones of people who die young, and old cemeteries are full of them–many who didn’t live long enough to be named.
Thank you! A boy I knew my entire childhood got cancer right after high school graduation. We always had an unspoken crush on each other. I remember one night riding home on his bicycle handlebars in June before he found out he was sick. There was so much young promise in that night!
After that I still saw him but everything had changed. He was really handsome and kind. An incredible poet too. It made no sense that he had to die.
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It truly makes no sense.
A difficult question Adrienne. I’m no stranger to Death. many members of my family have gon some very old, some way too young. The latter I cannot yet get over with. I keep thinking of all the things they’ve missed. Anyway, I am glad you know where your people are buried. It’s good to visit them from time to time.
My grandfather fought in WWI. Lost half a dozen brothers and relations. I got to know him well. I always say that he will keep on living until my brother, a cousin and I are still around, since we’re the only ones who remember him…
Thoughts on your comment about worshiping God 24/7. I think that, in fact, it will be no more difficult than breathing 24/7. It will just be the atmosphere in which we operate. But the Bible suggests that there will be many activities in heaven — just as there were in the Garden of Eden. The difference is that everything will be perfect and delightful and we will communicate with God with no interference.
What a perfect description of the afterlife! I love: “It will just be the atmosphere in which we operate.” Perfect.
I remember how excited I was by the thoughts of heaven written in N.T. Wright’s book on the subject. You’ve given me that same feeling. 🙂
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Very good. A great meditation for Ash Wednesday which is today. The priest makes a Sign of the Cross with ashes on our forehead reminding us that the end is coming and we should be prepared for Judgment Day. Few are prepared and those saintly individuals who are would never admit it.
But we must persevere in trying, trying to be more Christ-like. Heaven is our goal. Our time on earth is for preparing and persevering to get there. The thing is we must never give up despite all our failures.
I agree with Dostoevsky that the sacrifice of life is the easiest. Once and done. No problem. Also, little learned. What’s hard is a long life with lots of ups and downs. Knowing you are not a winner. And the only thing you have to present to God is lots of losses, a few wins, lots of sadness, but lots of lessons learned especially about yourself, but most important knowing you persevered with God’s help.
Don’t ever give up. And always ask God for his help.
Wow! Thanks so much for writing this! It actually great inspiration for the novel I’m writing about a young man who goes to fight in the Civil War but his real battle is in understanding the purpose of sacrifice at home. You have encapsulated everything I’ve been thinking about so clearly! Love this.
Great inspiration to start the day, Michael.
You are most welcome Adrienne. Good luck with your Cilvil War novel. Maybe it will help folks to understand the cultural civil war going on today. It is interesting that in our time the politics have flipped. Civil War Democrats (cultural preservation) are today’s Republicans while Civil War Republicans (cultural Progressives) are now Democrats.
I’d say that the Civil War “progressives” at least had the moral high ground on the slavery issue. But progress is a funny word. I think the same moral dilemmas exist in every generation, just cloaked differently. There are more slaves in the world today than all there ever were in the Americas back in the day but very few people feel it’s there problem — even the progressives of today. 🙂
There’s a story from my faith about a man, “Stanley,” who meets God after death, and worries that he didn’t live his life as well as the famous rabbi, “Brad.” God says that doesn’t matter – did he live he live the best life of Stanley that he could?
But I want to be Brad! 🙂