It is a blessed, clear day today and I am enjoying some butter pecan ice cream.
Today I took an early morning walk in a cemetery near the UO campus. It is an old cemetery, filled with tombstones and markers from the 1800’s. There are many tall fir trees, cedar, ash, oak, etc… as well as many types of shrubs and grasses. It is 17 acres of open air and greenery.
As I walked within this park/cemetery, I could hear the swooshing of wings as crows would fly by on the chill air. I used to proclaim that I wanted no memorial for my body when I died. I could not see taking up space on this Earth for something such a monument to my dead body. But this cemetery is an oasis of green and trees within a city’s heart. As I walked by on plot there were three markers. One said Mother, the other said Father, and the third was blank. I could not help but imagine what if this were the plot of my family. How would knowing my body’s gravesite, as well as a memorial to my passed family impact me? Having not lived around the burial sites of my family my entire adult-hood, it is an alien concept to me. I’ve not made pilgrimages to gravesites of loved ones as they are several states away. Would this re-occurring and cyclical return to death impact my living? Would it shape my view of life? Would my visit to death’s doorstep allow me to be freer and truer in my own life?
I used to imagine that I would want my body cremated and my ashes scattered to the wind. But I thought of the monument approach. What if people were to instead bury their loved ones near some scenic wilderness vista? Imagine walking up a winding trail in the mountains and you stop at a breath taking sight of the mountains and the forest around you. What a grand place for a grave. Would such practices offer more of a respect for the earth? Would we be so ready to clearcut entire ecosystems, filled with diversity and teeming with life to replace it with a barren void, to be succeeded by a monoculture tree-farm, to be cut down again and again? Or could we attach the same sense of the sacred to a forest as we do a cemetery if we could bury our dead there?
I could imagine the trees throughout the park as the living energy of those buried neath the earth.
I passed markers for Civil War veterans. How good it is to see markers for Union soldiers. Having been born and raised in the south… every boy wants to be a “rebel”. How blind we are still to the true causes and reasons for fighting. Every boy that grows up in the South should instead be taught the civil war from a less romantic perspective and more from a historical and with an understanding of the abolitionist movement and the understanding of the horror and shamefulness of slavery. Yes… tear down all remnants of the confederacy, remove it from the state flags and do all that you can to promote peace and understanding. It is not heritage but history and history is not always to be revered, though remembered.
While I walked further, I heard church bells. It is Monday, Christmas Day and a church was calling its members for service. I could see through the threes the forms of people walking down the sidewalk to enter the church. The bells played on old hymn of which I am quite familiar with from my childhood. It also played a few Christmas Carols. I pondered for a second the thought of entering the church for service.
I saw the cross on the church and pondered it. I also pondered the Christian Christmas. Being a Unitarian with a pagan bent in me, I draw from many traditions to celebrate the Divine in my life. Psychologist who practice primarily from Jung’s theory of personality are Jungians. Those who practice the form of analysis as created by Freud are Freudians.
I thought of Christ, not as a god on earth, but merely as a man. I think that his accomplishments are all the more noteworthy and admirable if one thinks (as I do) of Christ as merely a human man and not a god. I thought of this ordinary mortal man who practiced compassion and love and who continued his life of integrity to the terrible end. It is a wonderful story and as such it is possible to call one who looks at his life and accepts his practice of simplicity and compassion a Christian. I could see that only one who practices the life as lead by Christ as being able to call his/her self a Christian and the notion of calling out for forgiveness, regardless of crimes (don’t get me started on the notion of sin!) and dogmatic views of heaven and such. How many people call themselves Christian who attain and amass wealth due to greed, who give not their time or energy to helping others, and think that a Sunday service and an emotional repenting will allow them to be forgiven. Preposterous. This is as strange as a psychologist who studies only rats and behavior problems and yet doesn’t ever look at a person’s dreams or unconscious events and yet still calls him/her self a “Freudian”. Again… preposterous.
And so I turned and began to walk back through the cemetery. Churches offer wonderful social centers and community for those belonging to whatever faith they are. A community built around faith has but another anchor to hold it together and it is something that is lacking in many societies and neighborhoods. As I continued to walk, I walked past a Bahai center and a Jewish center near campus. Can we, as a rich and diverse nation of many faiths and cultures, find a common underlying “faith”. Can we find an underlying ethic that pervades all of our rich diversities?
As I neared the end of the cemetery, the crows still cawing and flapping their wings around me, I thought of the graves once more. I thought of the trees drawing from the bodies for nutrients. Many bodies were buried before 1900 and so it may be that some were in wooden coffins, reachable by the Earth. But today’s coffins are metal and attempt to separate the body from the earth. I think that now I wish for my body to be simply buried in a hole. Wrap me up in a towel and put me in a hole and let the earth, the worms, and the trees have my body. Allow me to give back to the earth what the earth has given to me.
We take many resources from the earth, we take many gifts. What do we give in return? We use dam-powered electricity, drive fossil fuel burning cars, and cut down forest for out magazines. What do we do for the Earth? What do we give back in return for our lives?
And as I walked home, I thought of that other holiday during this time of the year. The Winter Solstice, when the Sun begins to lengthen its daytime dance, and the Earth will begin to warm again in the Spring. Perhaps we need to look once more at our connection with the Earth. Not the expressed meanings and such of the neo-pagan movement. But instead to get our hands in the soil, breathe the air, and feel the cold water. Reclaim the connections with the Earth as sacred in our lives.
Perhaps this Earth-centered approach can be a common ground for all of our diverse faiths and cultures. If we can all learn that we live on the same planet, that we are all connected in our dependency to this Earth for our lives. And if we each wonder what it is that we can give back to the Earth, perhaps then we can have what is printed on Christmas cards every year….
Peace on Earth.