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death (and what follows after?)

October 26, 2010

There’s an image in my head, it’s based on an illustration I saw in a book many years ago. A drawing of a cemetery built on rolling hills. It’s an old but well kept cemetery. On a simple headstone in the foreground sits a raven.

In my mind though, the bird is not a raven, but a barn owl. Barn Owls (and owls in general) have for thousands of years been associated with death, and are also known for residing in churchyards and cemeteries. I haven’t drawn this image, because I feel my skills as an artist are not nearly up to the task of rendering this properly onto paper.

I did, however, release a barn owl near a cemetery. I work at a wildlife center, and on occasion have the privilege of releasing animals, mostly raptors – hawks and owls. There is a large and very well-kept cemetery in a rural area not far from where I live, and also not far from the wildlife center. There may be barn owls in the vicinity already, but I thought the cemetery could do with another one.

I didn’t want to walk onto the actual cemetery grounds (although I did park in their lot), because a tall, grubby looking man carrying a box that moves slightly on its own might arose suspicions – curious glances, so I walked toward the river and the trees lining it which is located near the grounds. I opened the carrying box, and the owl flew out. It circled toward the cemetery and alighted very briefly on the roof of the main building. It then flew back toward me and the river and the towering trees. I like to picture the owl sitting on a headstone at dusk. And maybe it does.

I have been thinking about death for some time now, and I do not know why. Months ago, I do not remember exactly when, I read a book by Neil Gaiman called “The Graveyard Book.” It was loosely inspired by “The Jungle Book,” written much earlier by Rudyard Kipling. In “The Graveyard Book,” a little boy’s family is murdered at the beginning of the story, but he escapes, flees to a cemetery, and is raised for a time by many ghosts. It is a good book, and I recommend it.

The story is set in England, where both Gaiman and Kipling are from. Gaiman is still alive and residing in America somewhere. Kipling died in 1936, and his ashes are buried at Westminster Abbey in London.

In “The Graveyard Book,” cemeteries are described as being lovely places – public parks, where people would stroll, and sit on benches and have picnics. These grounds were lovingly maintained, and were an important part of the community. Perhaps in England many cemeteries are still like this. I don’t know if we have ever had this tradition in America. I’ve only heard of people visiting cemeteries for a few reasons.

The first reason of course is to visit the grave of a loved one. The second reason is horrible – satanists performing rituals. Graveyards also attract ghost hunters – people I do not understand. And occasionally photographers and others who admire the artistry of the grounds and headstones.

I am now recalling a video I watched this past year which I checked out from the library. It was a tour of the most beautiful cemeteries in America. It seems we also have a tradition on honoring these places, and keeping them nice for people to visit, even if they have no loved ones buried on these grounds.

Hmm.. if I checked out that video close to a year ago, then yes, death has been on my mind for awhile. Not on my mind everyday, but these thoughts and images recurring often enough for me to feel inspired to write an entry about death. And to wonder..

My life, most of the time, has been very very hard. I have thought often about my own death in times past.. in years past, and have thought of death as release. Rest. An end.

I was raised Christian, and so of course was taught to believe in heaven and hell. For many years I took these concepts seriously. I always found it easier to believe in the hell than in heaven. I’ve never considered myself to be an optimist. And also, through the course of many years of studying the Bible, I came to believe that despite sending Christ, the God of the Bible was not the loving sort. I did not believe the propaganda I was taught, such as “God is love.” That phrase never made sense to me.

I almost never thought of heaven. But I thought of hell a lot. During the early to mid 1990’s, when my obsession with Christianity was at its most intense, I had trouble being outside of the house. I would be in a public place, look around, see many people, and feel saddened and horrified that at least some of these people would die, and go to hell, and burn forever.

I had strong compulsions to go out and “witness” to people. Christians use the word “witness” in an odd way. They use it to mean “share” as in “share one’s faith.” I felt strongly compelled to share the gospel, even though my faith was causing me agony. I felt I could not share what I did not have – I was missing “the peace that passes understanding” that the Bible talked about. I was missing so much Christians were supposed to have. And still, I felt the compulsion.

I never acted on this compulsion. It was other Christians who talked me down from the trees, and told me I did not have to go out and talk to total strangers and try to share my “faith.”

But I sure thought a lot about hell back then.

I still think about hell on very rare occasions. It is within the realm of possibility that there is a hell, and that I will go to hell after I die, because I do not and cannot and have not in over a decade been able to accept Christ as being at all real and alive somewhere today. I believe he was a man conceived in the usual way, and had lots of good things to say, but kinda went nuts, pissed off the wrong people, and died a horribly gruesome death.. and stayed dead, unless reincarnation is true. No rising from the grave and ascending into heaven and all that.

According to most Protestants, my lack of faith in Christ damns me. These people could be right. Or for example, the Muslims instead could be right, and Protestants will be among those who join the ranks of the damned. No one knows.

I do not worry about hell much at all. I can only be who I am, and believe in what I believe, and reject what I reject.

Because I am not officially part of any faith, I have no solid belief in what happens after death. I feel mostly Buddhist these days, and reincarnation is an idea that has been growing on me, so I certainly consider it a possibility.

Death..

It is not death I fear, it is the dying. The process that leads to death. I hope, when I die, that the dying part is not too unpleasant. People can die in horrible ways, and people can die in their sleep. They can die of lingering illnesses, or instantly killed in wars. I do not know my time, nor how I will go. I just hope to go peacefully, and that my life has truly amounted to something. That I will have left the world a better place because I had lived in it and done my work in it.

But why do I have a desire to visit a cemetery? I don’t believe in mediumship. Or.. I suppose it is more accurate to say I feel like not believing in it. I have no need to speak to people or spirits on the other side, if there indeed is another side. Perhaps there is. I do not know.

I have never lost anyone close to me, although I have lost family members. Both my grandpas have passed on. One in 1998, the other in 2008. I was not close with either man. I can’t really say I miss them. I didn’t care much at all about my dad’s father. He wasn’t a nice man, and never showed much interest in me, and raised my father poorly – he was verbally abusive to my dad. So I never had a soft spot in my heart for him.

My mother’s father was practically a martyr. He endured a lifelong marriage to my acid-tongued grandmother, who would verbally tear into him daily, even though he was a kind and extremely well-liked and generous man. I liked him. We were not close because most of my lifetime, my grandfather and I lived in different parts of the country and we did not see each other often. I was not sad when he died. It was time for him to go. He had been already beaten cancer once (it was cancer that came around again that eventually killed him) and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years before he passed.

He was a World War II veteran – he was part of a bomber crew that flew 10 missions over Japan at the very end of the war. Because he was a veteran, he was buried in a veterans’ cemetery, in a state far from here, where no one visits his grave. That makes me a little sad sometimes.

I never really have understood the concept of visiting a loved one’s grave, though, and I think a reason I do not understand this custom is that I have not lost someone dear to me. I am guessing visiting the grave – it’s an emotional connection to the deceased.

There was a girl who died, who I still think of sometimes. Her name was Sheba. I didn’t know her well, but she was in some of my classes in school. She was beautiful, and did not just possess an outer beauty. She was also very smart and kind as well. A truly remarkable young woman.

Sheba died less than a mile from where the wildlife center is. The road near the wildlife center is very busy and dangerous – one of those two lane country thoroughfares with tons of fast traffic. Sheba had swerved to avoid a dog. I don’t know the details other than that – she might have hit a tree or another car. All I know is that she died. I still think of her sometimes. I wonder about death, and how sometimes it seems it is the best among us who die so early. Where is Sheba now? Is there life after death?

I do wonder about life after death. There are so many teachings and beliefs and theories about the afterlife.

Sometimes I wonder about ghosts. There have been so many accounts of hauntings, ghost sightings and so forth, that it is impossible to completely discount these things. I do not know what to think.

When I was a Christian, I was taught to believe that all these supposed ghosts were just demons masquerading as souls of the departed, sent by the devil to confuse and mislead people, and lead them do damnation,

Not all Christians believe this, though. My parents had Catholic TV on last year, the channel EWTN. There was a man on there who I actually like, even though I am certainly not Catholic. He is a venerable old monk, sort of a Catholic version of Yoda. His name is Father Groeschel. He has a very simple show where he sits in an easy chair, and talks about things, and the camera just rolls.

On the evening I happened to be watching, Father Groeschel talked about teaching at a boarding school in Brooklyn. He believed the school had a poltergeist – that’s what he called the spirit. Groeschel even said what I mentioned above – that there are far too many reports of ghosts to ignore as not being real. He said he believed the poltergeist was real. He and his students, decided it was best to make friends with the spirit. They gave it a name – a conventional name – a typical man’s name. I forget what it was. They also talked to it and said they meant it no harm, and that if they treated it with respect, could it please keep an eye on the place, and make sure the school wasn’t vandalized during the night when everyone slept or when they were gone from the building. Father G. said that during his time there, even though the school building was in a rough neighborhood, there was no vandalizing. It appears the spirit kept its end of the bargain.

This was quite something to hear! A catholic monk/priest, instead of claiming the spirit was a demon, and immediately performing an exorcism, deciding the spirit was some sort of ghost – a spirit of a departed human, and making peace with that spirit. Remarkable. Father G.’s story got me thinking.

And what of these ghost hunters and trackers? Some of them take their work quite seriously. They warn people of being very careful when going on missions to contact, or at least detect spirits. These unusual people have so many stories! Many likely can be explained away by science, but probably not all.

If Christians who believe in heave and hell are right, there are no ghosts, because souls of the departed either go straight up or straight down after death. The thing is, there are several references in the Bible to a place of the dead, where the dead just go, and await the final judgment. They don’t immediately go up or down. In the Old Testament, this place is called Sheol. In the New Testament, it is not given a name, but it is thought that when Christ descended into hell after his death, and, upon his arrival in that worst of places, he preached to the dead. Perhaps, “hell,” in this context refers to a place of the dead, not necessarily where fire that does not go out.

There is another part in the New Testament where Christ does talk about a place where “the worm does not turn and the fire does not quench.” Christ so often spoke in parables – metaphorical and symbolic stories, that it is impossible to know what he meant.

So maybe there is a place of the dead. Or perhaps that place of the dead, that neutral place, only existed until Christ died.. ?

Catholics believe in an in-between realm called Purgatory. There is actually some scriptural basis for this, but I don’t like digging out my Bible, and my cat is on my lap, so I don’t feel like getting up, and I want to continue writing. If you want me to find chapter and verse for you, just ask. It will take me awhile, but I’ve read the passage and I know it’s in there somewhere.

Catholics believe that most souls,(those that are not damned), go to purgatory before heaven. Purgatory is an unhappy place where souls suffer for however many years or millenia until they have burned off their sins and are totally clean, and can finally enter the heavenly realm of God.

Catholics believe in purgatory very strongly. I have seen in documentaries modern day Catholic pilgrims who go to various shrines. Some of them walk for miles barefoot, or even on their knees, over rock-strewn paths to reach the sites of the shrines. They believe this self-imposed suffering burns off time in purgatory – enduring pain now on earth so as to get out of purgatory faster.

There are innumerable beliefs about the afterlife. Some of the earliest human remains show evidence of some sort of ritual or ceremony for the dead being performed. It seems as long as there have been humans, there has been concern for the dead, and an afterlife.

Hindus and most Buddhists believe in reincarnation. They believe that we die and are reborn in a different body or form (human or animal, or spirit or even deity). It is the law of karma – cause and effect – that keeps us being reborn. The negative karma – bad energy I guess – from previous deeds from previous lives keeps us going around on the wheel of death and rebirth. It is only through one of many paths to enlightenment, and enlightenment itself – the purification of the soul and the burning off of all negative karma and the mind seeing the ultimate truth of reality.. it is this enlightenment that ends the cycle of death and rebirth, and the individual soul ceases to be, and merges with all that is. Or something like that. There are variations on this theme.

Some Buddhists believe that truly vile people are reborn as tormented and dangerous spirits called hungry ghosts. They spend their lives always hungry, in a perpetual state of absolutely miserable dissatisfaction. I have not yet read how a hungry ghost reaches the end of its lifetime but the teachings tell that even hungry ghosts can be reborn into a better state, and, perhaps a thousand future lifetimes later, can reach enlightenment.

Pagans? Hmm… some pagans believe in reincarnation. Others .. I don’t know what they believe – some sort of realm where people go when they die.

Ancient Norse pagans were very warlike, and believed that to die bravely in battle assured each warrior a place in Valhalla – the afterlife domain reserved for heroes. It was believed spirits called Valkyries lifted up the souls of the slain warriors and transported them to Valhalla. If you’ve watched the “Lord of the Rings” films, you might have noticed a very similar belief held by the Rohirrim people – the horselords who were prominent in the second and third films. I don’t remember if the beliefs of the Rohirriim were written by Tolkien in his books, or added into the screenplay by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Frances Walsh. The Rohirrim royalty in the film talked about earning a rightful place among their fathers in the afterlife, and wanting to die an honorable and brave death to insure this.

Also in LOTR, Gandalf tells Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli about dying after killing the Balrog, and “everyday was as a life age on the earth, and I wandered long on roads on which I will not tell.” Gandalf later talks to Pippin about a beautiful land on the other side of death. It’s a wonderful description, and one both pagans and Christians will be able to relate to.

Supposing there is a place for souls to go for their afterlife, then what are all these souls doing down here? If they are here. The Christian teachings don’t allow for the possibility of ghosts.. except for one Old Testament story.

There’s a very brief but interesting tale about the first king of Israel – a terribly flawed man named Saul. Saul was never well-suited for kingship, and eventually grew more and more psychotic, and also became aware that David was chosen by God to assume the throne once Saul died. This did not exactly please Saul. David had been his servant and resident musician. Saul came to hate David. (Yes, David, the lad who slew Goliath with a sling and a little rock).

Saul went crazier and crazier, and finally resorted to visiting a witch – the Witch of Endor. (Ah! I found chapter and verse for this story on Wikipedia.. it’s in the first book of Samuel, chapter 28, verses 3-25.) The woman was a medium. Saul commanded her to call up the prophet Samuel, who had annointed Saul with oil and crowned him king before he, Samuel died. Samuel’s spirit was indeed called up from the land of the dead, and told Saul that David would assume the throne, and that Saul would perish… something like that. If you want to know more of the story, look it up. Chances are that even if you are not a Christian there is a Bible in your house or in the home of your parents..somewhere.

So.. one story of a ghost, who appears briefly, then returns to his rest, after giving Saul some rather bad news. But no stories of hauntings or ghosts, only demons.

Buddhists, as I mentioned, have teachings about ghosts. Hindus? I don’t know. I know less about Hinduism than about various forms of Buddhism. I don’t know what Hindus think about ghosts.

Jews? I know very little about Judaism, except for ancient Judaism, as it is written about in the Old Testament – what the Jews call the Hebrew Bible. Since Jews do not believe in Christ as being the Messiah, they of course do not have a New Testament.

Jews have a mystical book called The Kabbalah. I haven’t read it. Don’t know much about it, except that, until recently, only certain Jewish scholars who had reached middle age and had proved themselves worthy could read the Kabbalah. Somehow, the word got out, and there so many books on the Kabbalah now.. maybe even an Idiot’s guide, or “Kabbalah for Dummies.” Are there teachings about ghosts and where spirits go in the Kabbalah? I haven’t a clue.

What do Jews, in general, believe about the afterlife? I can’t tell you. I’ve met so few Jews. They aren’t at all common where I live. And I haven’t studied much Judaism, because my interest in spirituality (post-Christian interest) has been almost entirely Eastern, with the exception of a bit of reading on various forms of paganism.

I’m caught between the belief in reincarnation, and the belief that there is no life after death at all. I often see no point in life after death.

Watching war films and documentaries got me thinking somewhat, though. Young people died after having hardly lived at all. This sometimes has not seemed fair to me, and I thought they should get another chance.. another go round to live a full life.

I have also thought about reincarnation because it is absolutely impossible to get everything right during one lifetime. Maybe we do keep going around until we come out right – enlightened, and then are not reborn anymore. Possible.. any theory about the afterlife is .. possible.

Sometimes, I am very pessimistic about life, and feel that no afterlife is the best thing, the very best thing. Rest in peace.

We humans know we die. We know how to kill, and as a species, have proven massively successful at killing. We rationalize. We pin medals on soldiers for killing lots of people, but lock up other people for committing murders. We allow abortion, which might just be murder, but imprison a mother if she kills her child, even if her child is an infant. Also, If a pregnant woman is murdered, her killer is charged with 2 homicides, not one. Is killing an unborn child murder, or not?? Our laws are very inconsistent.

And the death penalty.. should the government have the right to take a life as punishment? Some people say yes, some say no. We are good at death, but we haven’t sorted things out.

We have all these ideas about death and what follows after.

But none of us really know.

And I still don’t know why I feel a sort of compassion for the dead, and want to respectfully visit a cemetery or two, and take pictures of the headstones and the grounds, and just be there for a little while.

Maybe it is the time of year? Fall and winter are times of death. We are getting close to the pagan holiday of Samhain (I think it is pronounced “sah-when.”) Most folks call this holiday Halloween, and dress up and have parties, but this frivolity is a fairly recent custom. The ancient (and some modern) pagans believed that on this night, the barrier between this life and the realm of those who have died is the thinnest on the night of Samhain. (October 31st) I’ve wanted to attend a Samhain ritual,and someday might, but I don’t think the time of year is entirely the reason for me to have these thoughts of death.

This too, remains a mystery.

I probably won’t head out to a cemetery, but these thoughts of death might persist for awhile..

As with so many things.. I do not know.

All I know is that I will someday die. We all will.

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