This Too Shall Pass

Today I walked through a cemetery on my way to work.  I walked through rows of stones with the names of individuals and entire families.  Some stones were grand and ornate.  Others small and simple.  Some hundreds of years old could still be read.  Other stones were worn smooth, the names of the dead no longer legible.

Photo of central cemetery

I wonder about the purpose of such stones.  To immortalize us?  To provide a place for people to grieve, remember and perhaps find comfort?  Yes.

Yet we know that in time we will be forgotten.  Those who gather to grieve our passing in time will also pass.

For some reason I find this comforting.

To know that we are not immortal is to insert into our lives a dose of humility.  The world does not revolve around you and me.  Once we are gone the world will continue to spin and people will live their lives.  Our achievements will be forgotten. Our mistakes too.

Being aware of our own mortality allows us to set aside grandiose thinking and to live more fully in the present.  To be more gentle with ourselves and with others.

Humility can allow us to accept and savor the gift of being alive.  In Buddhist teaching this is ‘living in the now’, being fully immersed in the present.

Some years ago I was kayaking in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska.  We paddled through a series of islands that is home to the Tlingit an indigenous people who have lived in the Tongass for thousands of years.

With permission we paddled to an island that was a burial site with totems.  Each totem told the story of a member of the tribe.  Some were large.  Others small.  Clan affiliation and achievements were carved into each  totem.  The totems still standing were approx. 100 years old.  Others lay on their side.

photo of totem pole

Each totem was rotting away in the wet, relentless weather of the Pacific Northwest.  No effort was made to protect or preserve the totems.  Each was built to last a few generations and then simply rot and return to replenish the earth.

The Tlingit believe that no one is remembered for more than a few generations.  The impermanence of the totem teaches this lesson.  Yet the Tlingit believe that while life on earth is impermanent, in death they  return to their Creator.

As a Christian I believe something similar.

I don’t believe that when I take my last breath that it will be the end.  I believe (as with the Tlingit) that I too will return to the source of all that is good, lasting and true.  My tradition teaches that not even death can separate us from the love of God.

In the meantime, my walk through the cemetery reminds me not to take myself too seriously. To savor this moment of being alive. To do as much good as I can while I can. To know that this too shall pass.



Running with the Dead

famly cemeteryI recently moved to a new community. Most mornings my ritual is to go for a run. Across the street from my apartment is a cemetery. For the past week I’ve been running on a road winding its way past the grave stones. I’m accompanied by the names of those who have gone before me. Each name with a story of which I know nothing but with whom I feel connected.

I’m reminded of walking as a boy with my parents through a similar cemetery. Each Memorial Day weekend, they would take me to where our ancestors are laid to rest. At each stone we would pause and plant flowers. As we worked the plants into the earth, my Dad or Mom would tell me the story of who was buried under that stone. Each marker served to remind me of the people that I come from. One stone reads: ‘ Moses Harrop 1903 – 1906’. My Dad told me that Moses was the uncle he never knew. All we know is his name and at age three died during an influenza outbreak. My Dad would say: “We remember who we are as we remember the ones to whom we belong.”

Memorial Day is a reminder on both a personal and national level of who we are. As a nation we gather at ceremonies both formal and informal to remember and honor veterans of the military who served our nation. Their stones with their stark date of birth and death, remind us that most often it is the young who pay the ultimate price in war.

This Memorial Day I will join my neighbors and visit the graves of loved ones. I will plant flowers at my Dad’s grave. We will plant our geraniums and tell the story to any who will listen, of those laid to rest. As we do so, we will remember who we are, as we remember the ones to whom we each belong.

Decoration Day

Following the Civil War a day was set aside to decorate the graves of those lost to the carnage of war.  Decoration Day was to honor their sacrifice and encourage families and friends to decorate the graves with flowers and flags.   After World War II this day of remembrance became known as Memorial Day. 

Memorial Day remains a day to remember those who have served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice.  It has broadened to include a remembrance of all who have died.  Somewhat like the ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico, it can be a day in which families gather to remember their loved ones as they plant flowers, place photos, light candles and set flags.

My last Memorial Day with my Dad (Norman) was in 2000.  With my daughter Lindsay, Norman walked us through the family cemetery in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  With his Oregon grand-daughter he walked from grave to grave explaining to Lindsay who her people were.

One grave was marked: ‘Moses Harrop – born 1903 – died 1906’. 

This little boy who was his uncle, died before my Dad was born.  Norman wanted both Lindsay and me to know that Moses was part of our family.

And so we walked from grave to grave hearing names, some for the first time and being reminded that we belonged to them and they belonged to us.  Five months later we would be laying Norman to rest in the same soil.

Living in Oregon I can’t walk the graves of the family cemetery in Rhode Island.  Yet on Memorial Day, I will pause and remember who I am, as I remember the ones to whom I belong.   This Memorial Day let us remember and find meaning and even comfort, in the memory of those who went before us.  Let us offer a prayer of thanks for those who have helped us become the people we are today.  

 May they rest in peace.