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March 24, 2011

Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandmother’s death.

She had been in a fragile state for a while, and then on March 23, 2007, she passed away in New Zealand. I had just moved to Japan the previous August, so I didn’t return home for Christmas that year, marking the first year the core family was not all together for the day. I felt super guilty about not being there for Nana’s last Christmas for… well actually, I still feel guilty. Her son had passed away a couple of years before, so my grandfather was left forlorn at the other end of the country. At least I could make sure that the rest of the family would be together for the rest of his Christmases.

Until I got on the Peace Boat. I got this position, from October – January, meaning I would miss Christmas again this year. It was a big decision, but in the end, since I would be heading home in April when my Visa expired anyway, I ended up taking the gamble, went, and hoped Grandad would still be there when I got back.

He was. I ended up coming back to New Zealand a month early due to the earthquake, and luckily he, along with the rest of my family, were waiting for me. And then yesterday, I went out with my mother to visit my grandmother’s grave.

I’ve always thought a graveyard is a beautiful, but sad place. You can often feel the emotion with which the grieving family has laid their loved one to rest, exuding from the markings on the stone . The graveyard itself seems to carry an air of solemnity and … almost transendence as it sits silently over so many hundreds of years, collecting the well-wishing of thousands of people.

In the same burial ground as my grandmother (and uncle) there is a Children’s Cemetary. The place is filled with young lives lost, some reaching as low as to not have even reached their first birthday. Again, the grief and emotion pouring out from these markings is immense, as their families lament the fact that these little people never even began to experience life.

And looking at everything there, I find myself wondering, what is it for? Burying someone, grieving their death, and marking it with such physical objects… as I said before, there seems to be an immense sense of grief that flows from such a place, on the part of those left behind, but there doesn’t seem to be any sense of anything on the part of those gone. Are these things done to help the dead, or as a way of helping us deal with the loss, and move on? Is it really not about the dead at all, but about us?

The religious or spiritual would claim that the spirits are aware of what we have done for them, and appreciate it. Maybe they are right there, watching us, when we come to visit. And maybe they are. But even if they were, I am not sure how much they would really care if their memory was engraved in something large and impressive, or small and unnoticeable, so long as they were remembered.

The stone itself, again, seems to be for us. Do we create these large physical monuments because the idea of us dying ourselves, and NOT being honoured in that way, is scary? I doubt the dead person really minds.

For example, the small child who dies before reaching the age of 1. If they are still there, watching and waiting, in what form are they doing so? Still as an 8-month-old baby? To be left alone, waiting in the form of an infant, forever, seems horrible. Or if they are an older form of themselves, who are they? We are prodcuts of our past, and if this person has developed a personality, it will be someone totally different from the child we knew. The idea of the dead actually hanging around their graves seems horrible and unfair to me.

And as time passes, and as grief of a reality destroyed becomes replaced with a new reality, sure enough, we stop revering those graves as we once did. Visits become less frequent, shorter, maybe becoming more of an act of ritual than something done for the deceased themself. We would feel guilty if we didn’t.

And so a life ends. And in the end, what was it for? To grow, to love, to experience the world or your own part of it, to have children, then to die, to simply disappear and crush those children with that death? Then the cycle repeats. What does it achieve?

I went to see my grandfather at his retirement village. The place was, of course, filled with people no longer young and in control of themselves enough to live alone. People who now live out days of routine and habit: getting up, and then doing whatever they can to pass the time until going to sleep once again. Luckily, with so many similarly-situated people in the same place, it is easier to pass the time. Unlike their younger families, none of these other people have jobs, or other “life” commitments to keep them away. So they pass the time with each other, distracting each other, waiting for the inevitable, waiting to die. Is their part of the cycle over? Has medical technology kept these people alive for much longer than they ever should have been, not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of those of us who don’t want to deal with the grief of loss?

If that’s all there is, then maybe we should just get on with it. I’ve been overseas, travelling, having crazy experiences for years now. I have come back home for a while to realise that many of my friends who have been a little more consistent in their lives seem to have progressed further along the path of “life” than I have. Regular jobs, Houses, Wifes/Husbands, Children. And contentment. I currently have none of those things. When you stop and think about it, was that really the right choice to make?

P.S. I know my mother will probably read this, and I don’t mean any disrespect. Just thinking.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pee Dee permalink
    March 25, 2011 2:50 pm

    That was deep. I’ve got a few years on you, Grasshopper, (I’m 50) and these have been my observations. Strive to be happy, whatever that means to you. I don’t know if I’ve lived before and I don’t know if I’ll live again but I do know I’m living right now. I’ve travelled extensively, won and lost, and known love and despair, just like every non-hermit. The more I travel and the more I see, the more I think that life has no rhyme or reason. We were not engineered for permanency so we content ourself with what illusions of it make us most happy.

    1. Strive to be happy; the sort of genuine happiness that isn’t derived from getting everything you want, when you want it, and in your own way. Life in every breath. Live until you die. Never treat a moment as ordinary.

    2. Do no harm. To anything. Especially to yourself. See Point 1.

    3. Do not allow harm to be done to you. See Points 1 and 2.

    4. Everything has meaning. Even if a Divine Intelligence isn’t watching, live your life so that at the end of it you can smile at how small your list of regrets is and how large your list of happiness is. The life well-lived is the only guarantee we have a choice in, regardless of our situation or location.

    5. Always be a little kinder than you have to be. Even – especially – when it isn’t returned. Everyone I’ve ever met who was mean to me is struggling with their own demons and understanding. See Point 3, but see it through your compassionate eyes, even if its at a distance over time.

    6. Cultivate your happiness as a priority. Some might call it selfish but without it what you’re offering others is some degree of shared misery or dissatisfaction with occasional flickers of peacefulness.

    7. The only true freedom left in the world exists inside your mind. Know yourself. Be authentic.

    8. Your contentment belongs to you. If you’re a happily square peg stop trying to hammer yourself into a round hole.

    I don’t go to funerals and I don’t intend to have one. I don’t visit graveyards. Memory is not locational, and nor is remembrance.

    9. Some sacrifice is worth it but get the degree right and the reasoning centred. Sacrificing your happiness for those who seem genetically predisposed to whiny self-indulgence or high expectation from you but have a ‘take me as I am’ attitude to others will only render you both unhappy. Family, friends and lovers are just that; they are not your owners.

    10. All of this could be wrong. Finding meaning requires personal insight.

  2. March 26, 2011 8:56 am

    Hey, thanks for the insightful reply!

    Those sound like pretty solid principles to live by, especially the thing about putting your own happiness first. Even when people are nice to others, I still feel a large part of why we do it is because it also makes US feel good. If helping others is another way to help yourself, then that’s great 🙂

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