About twice a month, weather permitting, Melanie and I hang out in a quiet spot in the Forest Home Cemetery. We pick up caramel macchiatos at Kribi Coffee, find a secluded place near the bridge over the Desplaines River, and read for two or three hours.
We go there because it is the closest thing to a natural setting within the village limits of our town. Lots of trees. Geese honking overhead on their way to the river. Especially during the spring and fall migrations, lots of birds. About half the time we see deer.
I used to hike in Thatcher Woods, but my neurological disability won’t allow me to do that anymore, so the winding lanes in Forest Home provide a doable alternative.
I realize that cemeteries freak some people out because death is not a pleasant topic with which to engage. On Halloween we do bring up the subject of death but in a childish way, like how when I was 8 years old, my friends and I would play army.
When as a 19-year-old I served as a pall bearer for my friend “Den Den” Belonger who was killed in Vietnam, my naïve, heroic illusions were put to rest forever.
One reason Melanie and I choose a cemetery for a quiet place to retreat is that neither of us see death as an enemy anymore. We don’t see it as a friend exactly but more as a next-door neighbor whom we’ve known for a long time.
My dad died suddenly at the age of 50, a very real, upsetting shock. My mom died at the age of 99, a passing that felt sad and at the same time a relief. As my mom got close to the bottom of her slow downward trajectory, her death was almost something she and I looked forward to. Certainly not an enemy.
Melanie has also had her share of losses, so we tend to be on the same page when it comes to comfort with death.
We’ve never seen ghosts or goblins or monsters at Forest Home. They only exist, after all, in scary movies and in the form of kids in costumes while trick-or-treating. Maybe they represent our fears of the unknown. The unknown, as all of us know, is scary only as long as it remains unknown.
So we hang out under the shade of an oak tree, frequently looking up to share something we’ve read or to simply drink in the beauty of God’s creation.
The iced coffee, of course, doesn’t spoil the time there at all.
We hardly ever see any other Forest Parkers hanging out in that beautiful, quiet setting. I wonder why. One reason might be that most of us are scared to death of death.
Fifty years ago, Ernest Becker wrote a bestseller titled, The Denial of Death, in which he begins with the proposition that, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else: it is a mainspring of … activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”
He notes that “primitives” celebrate death because they see it as the “ultimate promotion … to a higher form of life, to the enjoyment of eternity in some form,” but most people these days have trouble believing that because it seems to the rational mind to be wishful thinking, as Sigmund Freud contended.
“Most modern Westerners have trouble believing this anymore,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner, “which is what makes the fear of death so prominent a part of our psychological make-up.”
Now, some of my friends would counter that they have faced their mortality and accepted it, which may be true for them, but I think Becker is correct when it comes to our society in general. The behavior of millions of our fellow citizens who are into vaccine hesitation during the pandemic in many ways supports, I think, Becker’s argument.
Check out the National Retail Federation’s estimate of what Americans would have spent on the charade we call Halloween back in 2020 — $8 billion with 58% of the people planning on celebrating.
The irony is that for centuries little kids did not dress up like Harry Potter and Hermione but went to church with their parents on All Hallows Eve or in the morning on All Saints Day, where they focused on death in general and specifically on praying for loved ones who had recently died.
Scott Kiser in the New Existentialists, lamented our cultural avoidance of death because “quite tragically we don’t recognize the mystery of Existence, namely, that limiting boundaries enhance our freedom; gains and growth are achieved through loss; new beginnings only arise from the ashes of endings; negations underlie our affirmations, and our finite nature points to our inseparable union with the Infinite. New and greater life only emerges from the death of old and outlived forms.”
This Sunday hang out in one of our cemeteries for a while, or if nothing else, drive slowly through one of them. It won’t be fun, like the casket races are, but it might be a blessing on a much deeper level.