There was a crisp, cool bite to the air as I left the house this morning. I sipped warm coffee as I drove on my way. It was early, with the lingering dusk before what would become a bright morning. The cars parked along my way bore frosty windshields. Seeing them, I reflexively turned up the heat in my car. As I looked out the rear view mirror, a trail of scattered leaves blew in the gust following my car. Yes, autumn has come, marking another season in our lives.
Sitting at a stop light, I couldn’t help but notice the house at the corner. The fenced in bungalow was crowded with zombies, ghouls, and ghosts — with many of these “undead” creatures larger than life-size! Along my route, were other homes decorated with Halloween images: grinning pumpkins, spider webs, skeletons, and bats.
Arriving at church, I found a line of small bells in preparation for the All Saints and All Souls ritual. Names of loved ones who have passed from this life were written on the bells. Each bell will be rung as part of a procession in observance of the deceased.
It’s interesting that as the northern hemisphere moves from summer to autumn, as leaves fall from trees, and as the natural world appears to die we are drawn to images of death. Our images are both the macabre ones for Halloween and sentimental ones for the memorials of All Saints, All Souls, and processions for the Day of the Dead. Yes, images of death punctuate this change of seasons.
Western culture, in general, and American culture, in particular, is uncomfortable with death. It’s been about forty years since sociologist Ernest Becker published his critique of the ways we shield ourselves from death in his book, The Denial of Death. While various forms of home care and the hospice movement and the prevalence of bereavement support groups have made death somewhat more visible than it once was, our images of death tend to be frightening and sensationalized. Perhaps they take these forms from the projections of our fears about the end we all share.
One of my friends makes a weekly pilgrimage to the Trappist monastery in Conyers, GA. It’s about an 45 minute drive from her home. She likes to spend a long morning there walking the grounds. There’s a particular area of the woods she prefers to walk. It’s a secluded place where few people go. The monks have reserved this section of their property as a natural cemetery. Here, people are buried in traditional pine boxes and allowed to rest in peace in the midst of the woods. In this place, their bodies will complete and continue the cycle of nature. Like the leaves from the trees, their remains will decay and become part of the Earth. In time, they will fertilize new generations of growth. It is here my friend finds a sense of peace as the life we know is transformed into life that is to come.
Perhaps in her walks my friend has found something that many of us miss: a connection to the natural cycle of new growth, full life, maturity, decline, death, and decay which results in new growth. Even though the cycle is all around us, we tend to shy away from the parts of the cycle that remind us of our own decline. Yes, we blow the leaves from our trees into a pile and bundle them for someone to carry a way with the trash. We remove ourselves from the process of mulching, both in our yards and in our lives, that allows what had died and fallen to become compost for new growth. Instead, we prefer to focus on that which we find beautiful and vibrant.
While I intend to mark the holidays over this autumn (yes, bags of candy already are waiting for the little goblins who will come on Halloween night and a little bell in the church I attend already bears the name of my deceased father), I will also take time to sit and be still in our back yard. Surrounded by the trees, I will watch leaves flutter to the ground as they fall. I’ll tend to buds of flowers that have wilted at the end of their season. And I will consider how good, how very blest it is to be part of this great cycle of life, death, and new life. It truly is an amazing thing. There’s really nothing to fear. Death is nothing more than another stage that leads to new life.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.