I teach a class called Writing for Publication at my university, but for me, writing is writing. I never pass up the opportunity for my students to learn something new. Part of that is simply getting them to experience life–and to write–outside their comfort zone.
And so this morning, I took my students to the local cemetery. We spent about 30 minutes just walking around, noticing the family names that we recognized on tombstones and trying to find the oldest marker there.
I noticed a bit of uneasiness on the faces of my students when I told them where we were going, and that’s not unusual. I have done this writing exercise before, and generally get the same reaction. I would suspect that if I were to suggest it to a group of senior citizens taking a writing class, the reaction would be quite different. Young people–and most other people–don’t like to think about death. They don’t like to be reminded that regardless of who you are, that’s where you are going to end up. That is, unless the world ends before we meet our individual deaths.
As I have gotten older, I have gotten more comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around forever. It still bothers me some, just as I am sure it bothers most people. I remember my mother telling me when she was struggling with terminal leukemia that she was afraid. And I don’t blame her. But I suspect that we are probably more afraid of the process of dying than we are of being dead.
I have visited many cemeteries over the years. Early on, when I was a student in Austria, I adopted a hobby of visiting old cemeteries and seeing if I could find the oldest marker. Europe has some really old ones, and it’s always fun to read inscriptions on the markers that tell something about the person. I am determined to have something funny on mine, because I think that’s a lot of who I am.
But it’s always sad to see markers that have been broken, scratched or vandalized. It’s not quite so sad to see tombstones that are so weathered that you can’t read them anymore. But I think everyone wants to believe that that marker will be their last opportunity to share something about themselves, and maybe is just a little snatch of immortality for them beyond the grave. And so we want to have a tribute that will last as long as possible.
Those of us who write have an advantage over those who don’t. We can believe that our writing will outlive us–or at least hope it will. With the onset of the age of e-books, that may be less of a case, but I am sure there are ways around that. Maybe we need to put all of our writing on a flash drive or a DVD and encase it in a time capsule beneath our tombstone. Then, say a century after we have died, we can have someone bring it out and share it with the world. There are no guarantees that computers will be able to read flash drives or DVDs a century from now, just as we would have a hard time listening to a recording on a waxed cylinder or wire recorder that was popular a century ago. But we can hope.
Christians have the advantage in that way. Hope. We believe that life isn’t over when that spade of dirt hits our casket. There is more to life, thanks to Jesus.
Even if you aren’t a writer.