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!