Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
Most people try to avoid thinking about death. To be fair, this is a reasonable response to the unsettling fact that we, and everyone we love, will one day stop breathing. Today, especially, there are endless sources of entertainment that numb us to the reality that our days are fleeting and our existence transitory. The constant background noise of our lives distracts us from the encroaching sense of dread that haunts us at three o’clock in the morning when we remember life really is but a mist, just moments away from vanishing.
Nevertheless, the grim fact remains: We will die, are dying. No amount of vitamin supplements or exercise will change that. What, then, do we actually gain by trying to push death out of our minds? Or perhaps a more important question: what do we lose?
Throughout the history of the church, philosophers, theologians, and teachers have urged Christians to resist the temptation to ignore death, encouraging believers to actively dwell on death instead. “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die,” writes Saint Benedict to the monks living by his rule. And for good reason. As the psalmist reminds us, it’s by numbering our days—contemplating death—that “we may get the heart of wisdom.”It’s by numbering our days—contemplating death—that “we may get the heart of wisdom.”
Traditionally, Lent—which begins this week, Wednesday, March 6—is a season set aside for this very purpose. It’s a time to repent, fast, and meditate on our sinfulness and mortality as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. “Remember that you are dust,” the pastor says on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust you shall return.” These are somber words, words that jar us out of our spiritual slumber by confronting us with the inevitability of death and our profound need for a savior.
Unfortunately, Lent is often reduced to little more than an opportunity for self-improvement, a chance to curb bad habits or temporarily abstain from small pleasures like Netflix, chocolate, or dropping a frustration-relieving F-bomb. Our impoverished understanding of death leads to an impoverished understanding of Lent, and vice versa.
Over the years, one practice has become, for me, an irreplaceable spiritual discipline, one that forces me to remember that my death is nigh, but resurrection is coming. It is, in my estimation, a practice we’d all do well to take up this Lent. I’m talking, of course, about the spiritual discipline of hanging out in cemeteries.
I first started spending time in cemeteries in high school. I used to drive by one every day on my way to school, barely giving the sprawling burial ground a passing thought. Then, one afternoon, on my way home, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the space. I decided to turn in through the open wrought iron gates.
Surrounded by a city of concrete, the beautifully manicured lawn dotted with bouquets left behind by loved ones of the deceased seemed to exist in its own universe. What stood out most was the silence. On the other side of the fence, the frantic pace of the world carried on. But in this garden of graves, some bulging with fresh dirt, life was peaceful and slow. I made a habit of returning there often to sit among the dead, occasionally even bringing friends. Since then, I’ve rarely traveled without first looking up nearby burial grounds or tombs worth visiting.
Cemeteries—and their predecessor, the churchyard—loom large in our cultural imagination. For some, they’re haunted places, a source of fear and anxiety. Others see them as inefficient, a waste of perfectly good land, an anachronism in a society that increasingly opts for cremation over traditional burials. Mostly we tend to avoid them because they’re tangible, geographic reminders of what awaits us all.
And yet, I find cemeteries surprisingly comforting. Being in the place of the dead has a sobering effect. Walking among tombstones, I often think of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where thousands of skeletal remains are accompanied by a sign that reads, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” This reminder puts the stress of everyday life in perspective and challenges me to fix my heart and mind on that which is eternal.
Theologian Martin Luther emphasized the importance of contemplating death as a way to prepare ourselves to die well. Rather than ignore death, Luther would have us “familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move.” Cemeteries, he says, are the perfect place to do so. “A cemetery,” he writes, “rightfully ought to be a fine quiet place, removed from all other localities, to which one can reverently go and stand and meditate upon death, the Last Judgement, the resurrection, and to say one’s prayers.”
Far from a macabre exercise in stoicism, spending time in cemeteries, I’ve found, helps me to feel the weight and sorrow of death more acutely, and to place my hope in the promise of the empty tomb more fully. Some days this turn toward hope is easier than others. Some days it feels impossible, as if hope will be forever out of reach. But acknowledging death, meditating on death, is always the first step. Only then can we begin to look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
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