Yesterday morning I buried John, a man I didn’t know. Back in the 1970’s he was active in the church I serve, then moved to California. I’d never met his daughter, sons, and ex-wife until we were standing by a columbarium with John’s seventy-nine-year-old ashes on a small table.
A graveside service, we call it. I said words familiar to most, regardless of faith: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”; and “I will lift up mine eyes to the hill, from whence cometh my help”; and “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” (Sometimes, the King James poetry is healing in itself.) Only the ex had something to say. John hadn’t been active in church for years, but he was a good man, raised in a good Christian home. I added that after his loved ones grieved, John would probably want to be remembered with gladness and thanksgiving. One of John’s sons lifted the urn into its resting place. In fifteen minutes we were done, handshakes included.
Walking back to my car, joy carried me along. When you stand before a coffin or urn and manage not to say anxious platitudes, when you let silence be silence and tears be tears and mystery be mystery and truth be truth, a severe beauty* rises up. The surest way to smother this beauty is to overthink it, but I’ll say this much: death is the ultimate bullshit detector. You can’t say, “Now, now, everything’s going to be all right” because that’s not true. And the more you claim to know exactly where the deceased is and what he’s up to, the more you’re spinning a lie. When you can let the ashes be ashes, say words of farewell and surrender, and then shut up and breathe, death’s beauty shows up. Shh. Shamatha (calm abiding). John was dead.
When I take in with others the fact of death, the denial covering humanity is scorched off. We stand at the edge of what is possible to know and look into what’s demanded of everything that lives. We Christians hold on to hopes and promises, trust that they’re true, but if we’re honest, our final prayer is, “We’re in your hands. Have mercy.”
Driving out of the cemetery, I stopped to see my mother’s grave and remembered the day over fifteen years ago when I tossed a handful of dirt on her urn and could have sworn beauty’s severe hand was crushing my throat. This morning that hand was healing as I gave thanks for the great and burdened effort my mother put into living.
Why do I find standing close to death, right on the edge of mystery, moving and beautiful? John Keats explains:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Passionate overreaching, these words, but the young poet’s intent is authentic. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt learned today that a friend was shot and killed in his mobile home last night. His two children, Matt’s honorary Godchildren, are with their mother. The truth that people routinely blow holes in each other’s chests isn’t beautiful.
But looking deeply into a long life reasonably well lived, to sit with that truth, is beautiful. The same sacred breath gives itself to me at deathbeds. An hour ago I sat with Annie, whose eyes look into another place, when they’re open at all. Lung cancer has gone to brain cancer. She has days. “You’re so tired,” I said. “Aren’t you?” A slight nod. Am I morbid to say Annie’s beautiful? I rested my hand on her bald head, told her I know she’s always tried to be a good person, to help out others. I thanked her for raising good children, thanked her for all those church dinners she set tables for, decades of dishes washed and put away. She sighed again and again. After having my say, I joined her, our out breaths a soft mantra. Severe, that’s the word for this beauty, the beauty of a chest as it rises and falls for another day, maybe two.
Call me depressing, but if I had to choose, I’d take muted over vibrant, the pale of dying or dormant over the crescendo of blossom. Summer in northwestern Pennsylvania is so swollen with leaves and grass that the landscape is a green embrace, but a hill covered with bare trees that invite the eye to rest moves me more.
Hydrangeas along the Coleman family driveway are great fun in full color, but the quiet maroon and purple they sink into before dying make me stop, bend low, and receive a blessing.
Patrick, the ten-year-old sage next door who has Down’s syndrome, has played with his Tin Man doll so much it often needs reconstructive surgery. Worn thin comforting a boy, it’s more lovely to me by far than any fresh toy.
Family dog Watson was award-winningly cute as a pup, but his scruff and Andy Rooney eyebrows going gray do gentle work in my soul.
And I enjoy cemeteries, too. If the acres of stones could speak, I dream them saying, “Everyone dies, John. No exceptions. Don’t be afraid.”
In an hour I’ll give my slate-gray soul a siesta in my church office. “Sleep, those little slices of death,” Poe is thought to have written. He loathed them. I say they’re beautiful and not at all severe.
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*Note: Severe beauty owes a debt to C. S. Lewis, who wrote of severe mercy in a letter to Sheldon Vanauaken.
Special Note: I’m sorry my blog posts and participation have been minimal lately. For the next couple of weeks I’ll be preparing a book manuscript for indie-publication. It’s called Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren. Please stay tuned for more information. Meanwhile, I’ll shoot for one post per week. Thanks for being patient with me.