Sorry, not really the cheeriest topic.
But, the subject of death has been the hottest conversation point in our house over this long weekend. S has been grilling me with questions about death, including questions about the death of Jesus and wanting to know how many Australians died in the First World War, telling me ‘look it up on the Internet when we get home mum’,when I couldn’t tell him. (In case you were wondering, just over 60,000 Australian soldiers died throughout the whole war, with over 8,000 dying at Gallipoli. When I gave S this answer this morning, he replied ‘What about the Second World War’? Back to google for that one later…)
These aren’t the first questions Master S has had about death. In fact, he has developed quite a fascination with it. It’s a fairly healthy fascination, not particularly morbid, just incredibly curious.
It started a while ago, when we passed a large cemetery near the city centre and he asked what it was. Now, every time we pass that same cemetery, he hits me with more and more questions of increasing complexity about the subject of death, the afterlife and the fate of those who remain left behind.
But yesterday was the first time since then that he had actually stepped inside a cemetery since his fascination has begun.
Every year on Easter Monday my extended family take part in a tradition that we’ve enjoyed ever since I was a child – we attend a small town Easter parade and also have a family gathering at a lovely picnic spot nearby. And in between these two events, we now also visit the nearby cemetery and have a cup of tea ‘with’ my great uncle who is buried there. It is kind of an odd family tradition I will admit, but is a lovely way to remember a lovely man.
Being up so close to the gravestones led S along a whole new wave of questions both while we were there and after we left. Here’s just a sample of the questions I can remember from the drive back to Melbourne (believe me, there where more, many more – it was a long drive).
Who digs the graves? What are people buried in? How do they get to the cemetery? What do they wear? Who writes on the gravestones? Who decided what should be written on the gravestones? What is inside a grave?….
Leading of course to the more complex questions which, with my lack of concrete faith always pose challenges to me. I’ve summarised my answers so as to explain the follow on questions.
What happens when you die? (Some people believe you go to Heaven) Where’s Heaven? (No-one really knows) What do you do in Heaven? (No-one really knows that either, but people say it’s a very happy place where you have a lot fun). What happens to your body when you die? (It is in the ground where it gets buried). Why doesn’t anyone know what you do in Heaven? (Because you don’t come back from there). Why not? (Oh look at those cows! Aren’t they big? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a cow so we could get fresh milk every day?). What do other people believe? (About the cows?) No, about what happens when you die? (Some people think you come back in another body). Which body? (Just a new body, like a baby). Do they remember about before? (Some people think so). What happens to your old body then? (It gets buried, or in some places, they burn bodies when people die) But what happens when you die? (I told you, you get buried or sometimes burnt). No, I mean when you are dying? (Oh. Your body stops working.). When will I die? (Hopefully when you are very old). How old? (Like a hundred). Why didn’t your mum die when she was a hundred? (Some people die when they are younger). Where is your mum? What is she doing now? (I think she is watching you, thinking what a gorgeous boy you are.) Are you sure? (I think so, but I can’t be too sure). But why? Why aren’t you sure? (We just don’t, because when we die, we can’t come back). But you just said some people come back in another body. (Oh, I just remembered we have more Easter eggs! Who wants another Easter Egg?!!??)…
And so on.
Further along the road, as planned, we stopped at the cemetery where my mum is buried. It was the first time I had taken the boys there, but not the first time I had felt such sadness that she isn’t here to share in her gorgeous grandchildren. She would have loved them. And they would have adored her.
My sister, also on the long drive home, joined us at the cemetery with two of her kids. We placed some flowers (which I had just picked overhanging from the fence at my childhood home nearby) and some Autumnal leaves from a nearby tree at the grave and reflected momentarily.
Until the kids got cold. The sun was already dipping beyond the horizon. The kids laid their hands on the gravestone. We all said goodbye to Grandma Penny.
And as we walked back to the car to drive home home, S had one more question for me: ‘So what is written on Grandma’s gravestone?’
You left us with memories so rich.
It is a line from a poem I wrote as a 17 year old in mourning. A poem I read at her funeral and knew by heart.
But yesterday, as we crunched through the Autumn leaves with a chill in the air on our way back to the car, I realised I hadn’t thought about those words for a very long time.
For the rest of the drive home, S’s questions weren’t about death, they were about life – my mum’s life. There was lots of laughter and joyful questions and answers. Memories still so very, very rich.
I hope you and your family have shared a very special Easter together xo