My husband and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with six hours of hiking on the trails in Cook Forest State Park. Which is one of the best possible ways for me to spend a day –communing with Mother Nature. As we walked along in this scenic Natural National Landmark, I was struck not only by its beauty, but also by what made up its beauty. In its “Forest Cathedral,” we were among old growth timber, the majestic white pines and hemlocks towering over us. We were also among the white pines and hemlocks that were no longer towering over us, but were instead lying around us, dead, broken, and in pieces. It was all part of the beauty of the great outdoors, life and death.
It seems to me that we work hard in our culture to separate life from death. We take death out of our daily lives and then we’re shocked when it occurs. But there are ways death can be a part of our days just as it is in nature, so we too can witness its beauty, beauty that comes from its gift of helping us appreciate life and living more fully now.
One way is to carefully attend to how we care for the remains of the dead. Throughout history and across cultures, we have cared in different ways. In the United States, we often inter remains in cemeteries. Cemeteries bring together life and death, nature and culture, past and future.
For many years, cemeteries were almost always small family plots or small rural or urban parcels connected to churches. Then in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831, 72 acres of land were consecrated for the Mount Auburn Cemetery and the first large burial ground was born. The cemeteries that followed had beautiful vistas, winding roads, attractive sculptures, manicured plantings, and gates to cross from the daily world into a sacred space. During this time, people went to cemeteries for picnics, carriage racing and hunting. They even had posted rules and guidebooks for visitors.
Today, our cemeteries are rarely utilized in this way and their value and significance in our culture has changed. Some people visit a cemetery at the time of a burial but rarely return. Others don’t see the need to keep remains in a final resting place with some kind of marker.
Not long ago I was a part of a local cemetery tour with a group of mostly twenty-somethings. I asked the group if they thought having funeral or memorial services and interments were important. The response was mixed. However, without being asked, the majority of the participants took the time to visit the grave of a well-known local community member before they left. They stood at the grave and shared their thoughts. They were a part of the beauty of life and death.
Joseph Story spoke to the importance of cemeteries on September 24, 1831, when he dedicated the Cemetery at Mount Auburn:
As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection, whispering in our ears. We listen to the voice of their wisdom, speaking in the depths of our souls. We shed our tears; but they are no longer the burning tears of agony. They relieve our drooping spirits. We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.
Cemeteries hold history, connect us to the past and to one another, and help us heal. But not all cemeteries are the same. Here in our community two types exist, non-profit and for-profit. Some are run by local community members; others are part of a large corporation. As a celebrant, I’ve performed graveside services in various cemeteries and have noticed differences in their feel. Benjamin Franklin said, “Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have.” It’s important to gather information about different cemeteries before making a choice.
In addition to deciding how we care for the remains of the dead, another way death can be a part of our daily lives is to make choices about how we want to be cared for when we die. Preplanning choices can include: burial or cremation; type of service; and, names of pallbearers, musical selections and readings. For some, it’s important to decide whether to purchase a travel security plan to cover preparations, transportation, and paperwork in case of death when they are away from home.
Whatever choices you make, the important part is witnessing and honoring the beauty of life and death.
This article originally appeared in The Centre County Gazette.