On A Dead
With my hotel key clutched tightly in hand, I jogged through the cemetery for the second morning. Cemeteries make great early morning running: quiet, scenic, no traffic. In spite of these advantages, however, there was an eerie uneasiness that accompanied this run. I had felt it the day before as well; something to do with the respect of the dead (or lack of it), like the desecration of Indian burial grounds by the white man oblivious to spiritual sensitivities. Was it just my imagination, too many Spielberg movies, or was there something real about being in the presence of so many bones? Why did I feel like a crowd was watching me?
To compound this feeling of irreverence (a feeling I could not logically find valid), I had noticed a policeman the day before, as I exited the stone gate, who had just ticketed a commuter. He barked something unintelligible into his loudspeaker. I wasn't sure, but I thought at first that the command might have been directed at me, but I had kept on running.
So this morning, hypnotized by my rhythmic breathing and the pounding of my impious Adidas on the pavement, I lapsed
into a fantasy. Recalling the previous day's encounter, I wondered what might happen if the policeman came after me today.
I imagined hearing his approach behind me on the narrow one-lane road. He followed me for a while, adding the high idle of his creeping squad car to the sense of foreboding I was already feeling from my underground audience. His tires crackled on the hot pavement. I ran on, ignoring him until he finally pulled up next to me and warned, "Jogging isn't allowed in the cemetery."
"Well... you can be sure...," I panted, "I'm not bothering any of the residents! (It was the kind of cockiness I have only in my fantasies.)
"Look, are you going to stop, or do I have to physically remove you?"
I pictured myself stopping, gasping for breath, then leaning my sweaty palms against the open window. "Officer . . . my best friend died last week. We used to run . . . every day . . . together. Before he died . . . he made me promise I would keep running" and here my voice would break "and he told me to run . . . past his grave."
Water filled the policeman's eyes. He stopped his car, got out, and started to run with me. Soon the caretaker joined us and diggers dropped their shovels and started running; then a whole funeral procession followed by a local news truck filled in the ranks.
* * * * * * *
Ah yes, so much for the Walter Mitty in me. As I left my fantasy, I found my mind turning to the subject of death. I passed two new graves strewn with hundreds of freshly cut flowers. The fragrance was deliciously sweet, but I couldn't help thinking about the awful reality that lay just beneath the surfaces of those peaceful, fragrant mounds.
We certainly do have a way of dressing up death, don't we? So much of the American way of death shields us from its horrible, but necessary reality.
It used to be that a person died at home where his friends and family had gathered around him. People saw and touched the reality. They were forced to face death: the emptiness and deterioration of a body without a soul. But in so doing, they gained a clearer picture of the material and spiritual worlds.
Today, people usually die alone in some hospital bed, and the only picture of death that friends and relatives have is a corpse fit more for a wax museum than a hole in the ground. Friends and relatives file by the body and comment, "How nice he looked, all dressed up." Nice? What could possibly be nice about a dead body?
As I rounded the far end of the cemetery, I began to wonder about the spiritual implications of this modern way of death. When the Apostle Paul talked about death to the people of his day, I'm certain they were more intimate with its physical reality than we are. When he said, "For we who are alive are always being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body" (2 Cor. 4:11), they must have had a painful sense of the reality of constantly facing something horrible. I think we gloss over verses like these just like our society glosses over death.
I wonder what we miss of the reality of what Christ wants to do in our lives in the process. Paul says we are constantly being delivered over the death, but who ever sees it? How many people actually get close enough to touch the lifeless death of our humanity, to experience the real life of Christ in our mortal lives? How much of what we present to people is merely a waxed corpse?
We mustn't be afraid to embrace in ourselves the loneliness, frustration, and futility of life. Even the Bible concludes that human existence is fraught with futility and emptiness, and the only reasonable thing to do is to fear God and keep His commandments (Eccles. 12:13). Certainly knowing Christ brings meaning and hope to that existence, but not at the expense of its reality.
Christ doesn't wax death over and strew its mound with freshly cut flowers. He brings life out of the midst of death like flowers springing from the ground. Not the cut flowers that will whither and die in a few days, only to be replaced by repeated visits until plastic ones will do. But Christ's life grows and blooms right out of the bedrock of that which is always futile and dying in us.
If we want people to see the power of God in our lives, we will have to be willing to let them touch the frustration and death that is there as well. Otherwise we will be giving them a dressed up version of something that is actually quite grotesque.
Meanwhile, flying on a dead run, I pounded past two more fresh mounds and back through the stone gate onto the busy street to my hotel. I had to admit after all this freaky fantasy and heavy reflection, it was nice to be back on the busy, bustling boulevard.
Chapter 17 || Table of Contents