Shopping for a Terminal Address

29 Apr

“For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we will find one another again
in the same place.”
~ St. Simeon of Thessalonica
(CCC 1690)

My students thought it was sketchy. Several of them had seen me standing on a curb near the campus service entrance earlier in the day – just standing there. “What’s up, Mr. Becker?” one of them called out as she drove past. “I’m waiting for my wife to pick me up,” I called back. “I’m taking her someplace to show her something.”

Someplace. Something. So mysterious. “What was all that about?” my students ventured later that afternoon before our evening hospital clinical. I was happy to explain. “We went to the cemetery so I could show her our grave plots.”

What?

Not the most romantic of dates, I suppose, but you have to admit that it’s a solid confirmation (in real estate) of our ultimate shared abode. And it was joyful, for I’d purposely picked out spots close to dear friends who’d also reserved plots. We laughed as we wound our way between the tombstones and graves to find our designated places along the fence – “here’s where we’ll be; here’s where they’ll be.” Permanent neighbors – what fun! There was a cemetery worker nearby setting up for an imminent burial, and he seemed perplexed by our joviality – probably even a bit offended. “Don’t these people know where they are?” his scowl implied.

Let him scowl!

Look, why kid ourselves? Short of the Parousia, we’re all going to die – something my nursing students know well. And while it can happen to us any day, at any moment, it’s a reality that comes into sharper focus as we get older…er, rather, to be honest here, it’s a reality that’s coming into sharper focus for me as I’m getting older. Muscles I didn’t even know I had are starting to ache, obscure joints regularly alert me to their presence, and my chronic illnesses get all the more chronic-er.

You too?

But these are all good things, I think. Despite the hassles, getting old is a gift – truly! We have regular physical reminders that there’s an endpoint on the horizon along with daily opportunities to avail ourselves of divine aid and maybe get things right, maybe set things in order once and for all. “Death puts an end to human life,” the Catechism makes plain, “as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (1021). Increasingly these days, when the morning alarm goes off, my prayer takes the form of, “Excellent – another shot at inching toward heaven. Thanks, God! Help me not screw it up today.”

What’s more, there’s also the fact that the older we get, the more funerals we end up attending – family, friends, co-workers. We grieve their departure, we comfort their surviving loved ones, and, unlike in our youth, we can’t help thinking to ourselves, “That’ll be me sooner rather than later.”

Is that morbid? Naah – I’m a Christian! Death is the point, after all – death to sin, death to self, dying that leads to rising and new life. It’s built right into our baptismal dignity – something we might forget when we’re watching cute babies get doused and sprinkled. It’s not simply a washing away of original sin, but also a sacramental entombment followed by a resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St. Paul wrote the Romans, who were familiar with the stark symbolism of full immersion, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

That newness of life begins immediately upon receipt of baptism, of course, but it won’t see its full flourishing until our earthly walking days are over. At that moment, God willing, the moment of our deaths, we’ll hear the welcome of the Good Shepherd and we’ll know, either immediately or in time, the blessed relief of joining the company of heaven.

Yet there’s still more to come, for we believe in the final resurrection of the dead, “when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life…” (Jn 5.28-29). Redeemed souls will be reunited with their bodies, and they’ll have arrived at what Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue (drawing on Chesterton) described as the “Tavern at the End of the World,” full of feasting and cheer and riotous mirth. They’ll gather round with the saints of their holy cards and devotions, but also all the hidden saints whose paths might’ve only glanced theirs in this life. Imagine the craic and camaraderie! “Of course, you’re here!” they’ll cry to each other. “And I? I’m here, too? Thank God! Praise God! Another round!”

That’s the part that has me so jazzed about our grave plots and their juxtaposition to our holy friends. I envision my wife and I greeting them as the general resurrection commences – a back slap, perhaps, a hand shake and a hug – and then rising with them to the Pearly Gates. And if St. Peter should glance at his book and raise an eyebrow at me in hesitation, I’ll pipe up: “But, listen, I’m with her” (pointing to my wife), “and we’re with them” (indicating our friends).

I know it doesn’t work that way, but I can’t help smiling when I think about it. In truth, as Mr. Blue puts it, “It is only Catholicism that would ever allow the like of me to hope some day to be there,” but if I do make it, I’d love to have some pals along – especially during orientation and those awkward ice-breakers. Wouldn’t you?

All kidding aside, by setting down our markers in that cemetery, we’re concretely acknowledging our mortality – to ourselves, to our kids, to the world. Like a religious habit or a large family, making such grave reservations well before they’re needed is an implicit declaration of faith and abandonment. Plus, for my part at least, just knowing it’s there waiting for me just might spur me on to “work out my own salvation” with increased diligence and fervor (Phil 2.12).

I tried to relate all this to my students, but they just shook their heads. It was all too weird for them…so I went for broke. “Now that we have our grave plots,” I casually related, “I’m going to try talking my wife into purchasing Trappist caskets – maybe set them up at home as bookcases or end tables.”

OK, maybe that was taking things a bit too far…perhaps.
___________________________

A version of this meditation appeared on Hour of Our Death.

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2 Responses to “Shopping for a Terminal Address”

  1. nancyv April 30, 2018 at 8:59 am #

    Good for you to tell your students this truth. I like the idea of the Trappist caskets too!

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