Are you afraid of death?
I used to be afraid of the experience of dying. Since I've had a family I'm still afraid, but more of their dying than I am of my own. Now, when I think of my own death, I think of it in terms of how it would affect my family, and I fear the not the pain of dying, but the pain of pending separation and the grief it would cause my loved ones. But still, that fear pales in comparison to the fear of losing one of them.
So on Saturday we visited a local cemetery. It's very old, with a rich and storied history, populated by the remains of fighting men from every conflict since the Revolutionary War, by generals, by sailors, by slaves, by politicians, by civic leaders. And by ordinary folk. And families. Whole families who entered the family plot over generations or - in some cases - within short days, months or years of each other during epidemics.
Larry and the kids and I were joined on our outing by our friends, Elizabeth and Johnathan and their children. Johnathan is also a photographer, and we'd been talking for some time about shooting some of the old headstones. We all started off together but soon Elizabeth and the kids and I broke away to visit the plots of families who had endured our worst fears - those plots where children lay.
Larry and Johnathan avoided the children's graves; Elizabeth later confided that they upset her husband so that he couldn't even bring himself to photograph them. Larry would only say they made him too sad. But Elizabeth and I were drawn to them and stood there, emitting silent condolences to the parents who had to wait many years before being laid to rest beside the children they'd lost.
One family plot held the remains of four children. Robert lived from 1834 to 1835. Eleven years later, in 1845, Edward was born, but died a year later. In 1850 came Caroline, who also lived but a year. All share a joint headstone. But the final child, Robbie, was with them longer. But not long enough. He lived nine years, and you can almost feel the lingering pain of his passing as you stand by his headstone. The top is carved with the image of a little dog and a riderless pony. Under his name are written the words, "Our last born. Our little pet."
As we stood before the plot - one of many such plots from that time period - Elizabeth and I pondered our good fortune to be living in the 21st century.
"All those wee babes," Elizabeth said. "You have to wonder how their mums went on."
But they did. And they did it without grief counselers, self-help books, anti-depressants and friends urging them to seek "closure." Somehow they endured. Somehow they faced every parents worst fear to go on.
We continued to walk through the cemetery - the late-afternoon sun throwing dapples of light over the weathered stones as our children ran and laughed among them. Why, we wondered, were we here now in a time when we could realistically believe our children will live to see adulthood? Why had fortune smiled on us? It couldn't have been because of anything we'd done.
Elizabeth, who is Irish, is deeply spiritual and one of the most loving and genuine people I've ever known. She and I share a rather broad view of God. We both believe we're here to teach and to learn and that our earthbound existence is just a temporary blip on an eternal journey of the soul. We wondered as we walked if the dead still lingered where they lay, or returned to host visitors to their final resting places. We certainly believed we felt something. Some plots - like the ones that held the Robbie and his three siblings - were surrounded by a strong aura of sadness and loss. Others felt light and peaceful. This feeling increased when our children came up to visit the stones. Could it be that the spirits enjoyed the company of children? It made us wonder. I'm still wondering. Perhaps what we felt was projection. Perhaps what we felt was real.
Now, dear readers, I didn't write this as a segue to some theological debate. Those have all been done, redone and will never end. And regardless of whether you believe in Something or Nothing, ultimately none of us will really know what happens in the afterlife - or if there even is one - until we die ourselves.
But something did happen as we left that deepened the mystery for me.
The cemetery gates close at dusk, but as we were driving out, something caught my eye in the newer section of the cemetery.
"Stop!," I implored Larry. "I want to see one more grave." There was just something about this one, something that beckoned me. Something that said, "LOOK!"
It was the grave of a 24-year-old man - a grave that had been lovingly tended, and recently, at that. A marble vase held cheery sunflowers. At the base of the vase sat a carved wooden angel, a rabbit, a seashell, and the wilted remains of a lily. Above his grave, a set of windchimes played the most peaceful and melodious notes I'd ever heard. I felt love at this grave. Love of the people who tended it and something else. The appreciation of someone who knows they're still alive in the hearts of their family. Appreciation, and perhaps a bit of pride.
"Wow. You were loved," I said to the young man. "You're still loved." I asked silent permission to take a few shots, not feeling a bit silly for doing so, and then just stood there for a moment, enjoying the sound of the chimes. But then, as I aimed my camera up for a shot of the chimes I noticed something odd. There branches and leaves were perfectly still. There was no breeze. The chimes were moving on their own.