Running among the Dead
One of the things I miss about Vancouver is, perhaps surprisingly, living close to a graveyard. During our time at Regent I made sporadic attempts at regular jogging. The life of a student was, obviously, a fairly sedentary one at times and going for a run was one way to break the monotony of hours spent reading, writing, editing, etc. I didn’t run for very long, mind you, but I did try to get out a couple of times a week to maintain some modicum of fitness.
More often than not, my runs took me to the cemetery across the road. It was a fairly large one, stretching for at least eight city blocks, and I had a route through the various paths that took me precisely 30 minutes (theoretically, that should have changed the more I ran, but alas, it remained fairly constant…). It was quiet, there was no traffic to worry about, and the paths and trails were well-maintained. At the top of one of the hills, around half-way through my route, there was a gorgeous view of downtown Vancouver. As far as tranquil and picturesque environments in which to make my incremental, wheezing, staggering steps toward fitness, the cemetery wasn’t bad.
Many people would likely consider running through a cemetery on a dreary, drizzly west coast day to rank fairly low on their list of inspirational sources, but I almost invariably came away from these runs with a lot to think about, and usually with a renewed sense of clarity and gratitude. I found my graveyard runs to be necessary correctives—blasts of reality in a culture that glorifies youth and beauty, a culture which seems so desperate to anesthetize the pain of aging with another product, gimmick, or diversion.
My graveyard companions reminded me of the shadow side of human life. “You will not always be strong enough to run among us,” they said. Like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, the gravestones called out:
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them.”
The headstones were particularly intriguing. Each one represented a story—a story in which an important chapter had come to a close. While I had no way of knowing the shape of the lives represented by letters and numbers carved out of stone, I wondered what they would say if they could have spoken. Some of the headstones were shaped like an open book or a scroll with references to verses or quotes speaking of God’s ability to take from death the last word. These monuments seemed to be a reminder of sorts, as if to say to God, “Look! Remember what you promised! These stones in the grass cannot be the end!”
Now that we’re in Nanaimo, my runs do not have the same thought-provoking character as they did in Vancouver (at least not yet—I’m too busy gasping for air to be inspired!). But I’d like to think that I’ve taken something away from my brief time spent running among the dead. I’ve been reminded that death is powerful, that it is indiscriminate, and unpredictable. It comes for the young, the old, and everyone in between. My aversion to death was reinforced by hours spent plodding around amongst tangible reminders of this tragic reality with which we all have to deal.
The question I would invariably come away with after these introspective, somewhat morbid half-hour sessions was: “What ought our knowledge of and distaste for death have to say about the shape of our lives?” It’s a question I’ve returned to every so often (see here and here, for example) and have found few responses better than the following one, from Frederick Buechner. As always, he has a profound way with words and he poignantly sums up the main lesson I’ve taken from my time spent running among the dead:
And at my best and bravest I do not want to escape the future either, even though I know that it contains what will someday be my own great and final pain. Because a distaste for dying is twin to a taste for living, and… I don’t think you can tamper with one without somehow doing mischief to the other.
Pastoral ministry is the vocation that cannot escape dealing with death. Your writing here is encouraging because you do not attempt to flee, because you understand that the love of God is the only match for death.
In Darwin’s writings, death is what checks the overproduction of life. In his explanation of the origin of the species, we are what we are by virtue of a struggle between life and death, a struggle which began with life, a struggle in which life temporarily gains, and a struggle in which ultimately death will win.
That is the narrative that I think we mainly believe today. I think the Christian narrative begins much the same, but the ending is different: In the end every heart breaks and God is our hope.