“All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven.”
Thus begins one of the most famous passages in all of sacred scripture. As we observe the great feasts of All Saints and All Souls, we in the Northern Hemisphere are also immersed in the annual danse macabre of Mother Nature shedding her verdant raiment in a carnival of colors before succumbing to the cold icy pall of winter. However, despite the richness and significance of this timeless display, we live in a culture that is obsessed with the fleeting flash of hollow and shiny things.
Our culture has an uneasy relationship with death. We are relentlessly confronted with horrifying images of carnage and destruction brought to us instantly through the worldwide communication network in a way which was never before possible, but at the same time, instead of being inured or desensitized by this barrage, we fear death all the more. We flatter ourselves that modern medicine can conquer the grave, but in truth, the more we strive to extend our days, the less we seem to grasp what to do with them.
In the not-so-distant past, our ancestors had a much more intimate relationship with death, and as a consequence they also cherished life more deeply. People came into the world and passed out of it in their homes, surrounded by their families. It would not have been unusual to be prepared for the grave by the undertaker in the same bed where, decades before, the midwife had first attended to you as a naked, screaming, and blinking newborn. These momentous occasions of birth and death have become sterilized and industrialized, which comes with many benefits, but it also places us at one remove from the grim specter of the fate which awaits us all.
Contrasted with the celebration of our beloved dead being received into the bosom of eternity, the annual secular ritual of fiddling with the dials of our clocks seems rather inconsequential and downright silly. More ominously, the gaudy displays of “Holiday” are already out in the stores, not content to wait for the dead to have even their one day on the calendar, much less the whole month which is their due. Our perception of time is warped and distorted by this crass commericalism, but despite these illusions of control, the hours march ever onwards hastening us towards the grave.
The world needs more cemeteries and fewer shopping malls. Our forebears built cities of the dead as places of respite and refreshment for the living. Hollywood has corrupted this tender and comforting relationship with our ancestors and replaced it with the gore and horror of black magic and demonic possession. That graveyards are seen as spooky and ominous places is perhaps a symptom of something much more deeply wrong with our society. We fear death so viscerally because in our hearts, we know we are unready to meet our maker.
As the hymnodist Isaac Watts paraphrased the 90th Psalm, our struggles in this world are as nothing in the infinite span of God’s creation:
The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.
One of the popular mottoes for timepieces in the Middle Ages was, “Ab Hoc Momento Pendet Aeternitas.” Each and every moment our lives stands as a threshold between the past and the future. We are always choosing between what is ephemeral and what is eternal. As we cherish the memory of the faithful departed, we would do well to consider how we ourselves would like to be remembered.