Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sleeping, Resting, Waiting ...

We see these words on tombstones and cemetery monuments all the time. If you’re like me, you think its just a way to soften the blow of death for those left behind. The child is dead, for instance, but to make us feel better, we think of it as the long sleep. The implication of course is that (if you’re a Christian) you’ll be together once again in heaven. Seems to go hand-in-hand with Victorian sensibilities relating to death and the mourning arts. However, the idea of death as "sleep" has much older origins.

"Koimeterion" is the ancient Greek word for "sleeping room." The verb "koiman" means "to sleep." A cemetery, then, originally may have been thought of as "sleeping quarters," temporary lodging. This “temporary sleep” is put into perspective by Mark C. Taylor in his book Grave Matters: (2004) "In the Early Christian tradition, which has been so important in shaping the space and determining the significance of cemeteries and graves in the West, the cemetery was seen as a temporary resting place where the dead awaited resurrection.

So what’s wrong with thinking we’ll all see our loved ones in heaven after we die? Seems kind of innocuous, right? Makes us feel better when we lose someone. What’s wrong with this picture hadn’t occurred to me until very recently. In the book, Good Omens (by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, 1990), the twelve-year-old antichrist gone good, states the following: “If you stopped tellin’ people its all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.

So telling us Christian sheep to roll over and die, because things will be better in heaven, is like saying, “you have no control over this, so just accept it.” How can such passivity change the world for the better? Doesn’t that fly in the face of what Christianity is all about – love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that a mixed message (even a bit hypocritical)? If we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would try to work out our differences while we’re alive, not just let the differences continue hurting us. Saying someone will “burn in Hell for what he did” is the same thing. It might make us feel better to think that they'll get what’s coming to them after they die, if it seems like they can't be punished sufficiently for their deeds while still alive. 

So, after reading all this, everyone out there who feels we’ll get our “just rewards” after we die, raise your hand. Wake up people. A more practical epitaph is seen on the headstone below: "She hath done what she could." The phrase may seem trite at first glance, but really, maybe she really did do all that she could to make this world a better place. Shouldn't we be following in those footsteps?

Final Notes:
The first and last photos were taken at Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery. The "Resting" and "Waiting" stones were photographed in Wilmington, Delaware's Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.