Visit a Cemetery and Learn How to Live

My lifelong buddy and I took a walking tour of the cemetery where many of our ancestors are buried. One of the graves on my must-see list was that of my great grandparents on my father’s side. I only knew them from Dad’s stories about “Bubby” and “Jedda.” Getting the grave location from the cemetery website was one thing, finding the gravestone quite another. Many markers were made invisible by years of overgrowth and neglect. Still others were showy and ornate. Almost every stone we saw told us something about who was buried beneath it and when. But when we finally found Bubby and Jedda’s stone, the only thing a stranger would learn about this grave’s inhabitants was their last name and that whoever inscribed the stone added simply “May they Rest in Peace.”

Few of us live in peace before ending up under a stone with that sentiment. What I do know about my great grandparents is they lived fairly long lives for people who transitioned from the 19th to the 20th centuries. I also know they raised several children who grew up to be notable, both as business people (as my grandfather did) and as priests (as two great-uncles did).  You would assume notoriety from their gravestones, but not the one over Bubby and Jedda. The only other thing you might surmise from it is that these were simple people who lived simple lives. Maybe this is an important lesson for 21st century people struggling to make something of their lives—especially those who don’t have much time left to do so.

“When life is stripped down to its very essentials, it is surprising how simple things become.”

That’s a lesson Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen has learned from her patients. She’s Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF School of Medicine and the Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio. Those titles would be hard to fit on a business card, let alone a gravestone. Nevertheless, in working with the dying, she has learned the value of simplicity. “Death can be the doorway through which we ‘grow up’ and discover our life’s purpose and meaning,” she believes. One particular patient taught her that at the depths of his most unimaginable vulnerability he discovered that we live not by choice but by grace—and that life itself is a blessing.

Back to my great-grandparents’ grave. Many of Dr. Remen’s patients are forced to face death much earlier than Bubby and Jedda did, yet with all the decades of history between the two of them, the only inscription on their gravestone is their last name and the simple prayer for peaceful rest. Why? Maybe people who lived past their expiration date in those days–especially if they migrated from places where life was harder and shorter–adopted simplicity as a way of life.

Such simplicity was prescribed 2000 years ago by St. Paul, as we read in this Sunday’s second reading (Philippians 2:1-5):

“Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others. Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”

Maybe directing a simple life to that end helps a soul rest in peace both in life and death. But someone dedicated to meeting and exceeding the challenges of a fast-paced 21st century life might disagree—especially if they learn that life won’t last very long. Unfair? That’s how many hearing the Prophet Ezekiel’s inspired advice on living a Godly life responded to him thousands of years ago. Sunday’s first reading offers his Godly reply (EZ 18:25-28):

Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.

Maybe revise is a better word than preserve, based on Sunday’s gospel reading (MT 21:28-32). Jesus taught the priests and elders of his time that rebirth and repentance are the keys not only to a simpler life, but an eternal one. It was advice they obviously needed, considering the direction Jesus saw their lives going.

“Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”

But it’s the advice Jesus gives his disciples later in Matthew’s gospel that now screams out at me when thinking about that simple gravestone over my great-grandparents (MT 23:11-12):

“The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

With that, allow me to exalt my Great-Grandparents, both immigrants from Czechoslovakia who introduced my Grandfather to this country at the turn of the 20th century. Meet Caroline, who lived 82 years until February 28th, 1953. And meet Joseph, who lived 72 years until February 11th, 1943. Together they raised six boys and one girl—all of whom were living monuments to the great and simple life of Bubby and Jedda.

–Tom Andel

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