Tombstones, Blackberries, and Sister Death

“Death is the unseen companion, the unknown companion who walks every step of the journey with us. It came out of the womb with us and has been with us till now and is here with us today … Death in that sense is a time of great homecoming, and there is no need to be afraid.”
– John O’Donohue –

A few weeks ago I walked through a cemetery in the picturesque town of Bright in regional Victoria, Australia. Cemeteries are peaceful and thin places. I noticed several old graves – their tombstones undecipherable, overgrown with blackberries … forgotten. It’s both a sobering and comforting thought that one day our lives will end, and after some years, perhaps decades, we, too, will be forgotten.

Underneath those blackberries and crumbling tombstones are the remains of someone who once told a story – and that story determined their actions and perspective. I wonder what stories they told? What was the stage their story unfolded on? Who were the main characters? And when all is said and done, what did they find meaningful about their stories that they would give their life to it?

I look at the many tombstones surrounding me and I feel her presence. Sister Death was what Francis of Assisi called her. She is always there. Why wouldn’t she be? Birth and Death are the bookends of our life – they accompany us like shadows through our living existence. Reminding us that life is brief and our moments fleeting.

We try to ignore her presence, pretending that somehow we will find a ‘cure’ – something that will help us escape her call. So we create a death-denying, grief-shaming culture that renders us delusional and ill-prepared for what life may bring our way.

I spent many years of my life in a religious tradition that worshipped Triumph, Breakthrough, and Influence. Death was spoken about in hushed tones – something unfortunate that happened to some people. Those that remained were grief-stricken and made us uncomfortable with their refusal to ‘get over it.’ Applause awaited those who emerged ‘triumphant’ from heartbreak – they were scuttled onto platforms to tell their ‘breakthrough’ stories … and all this time Sister Death sits with each of us, listening …

And then, like a thunderstorm on a clear blue day, something happens that we do not have answers for – A virus, that has no idea of how important we all are, drops in for a visit. It is no respecter of persons, striking rich and poor, young and old. In some places, graves can’t be dug fast enough, in other countries, wealthy and privileged, disbelief sets in. How dare Sister Death make such an unannounced entrance?! There must be something wrong? We are important, rich, clever, God-fearing. We can control nature … or so we thought. There must be somebody behind this – some evil genius wanting to kill us – because the alternative, that we are not in control, that the human species and our civilisation is always just a few breaths away from extinction and becoming another layer of dust for future archeologists to dig up, is too terrible to consider … unless …

Unless we stop ignoring Sister Death around our Table of Life. She sits in the cold and dark corner – deemed an enemy by some who see her through the interpretation of a religious text. Whatever we think, she awaits our nod of recognition, perhaps a cup of tea? She has a story to tell for she has been here before we thought of time as a thing …

What would she say to us, if we, instead of freaking out in a superstitious frenzy, would listen? Maybe the answers to our yearning to understand life are held by her? What does she think of those tombstones covered in blackberries? Quiet and forgotten? Maybe she wants to tell us that Fear, sitting opposite her, tells many stories about her that are simply a bit … twisted? Maybe, to our surprise, we discover that like the graves in Bright, she is peaceful and without malice. She is simply the one that opens the door to the next chapter?

Maybe she wants to point to Love, sitting very close to her. Love, she might say, is older than her – for love has existed before the world began. The stars in the heaven lean in as she speaks, for they are witnesses to Love’s endurance. Maybe she would tell us stories about those graves in Bright – long forgotten in person, but something about them has lived on … Love smiles as she listens. Death looks up and bows to Love – “She is the greatest,” she whispers, “for Birth and I have a momentary role, but Love … Love never dies – blackberries and broken tombstones cannot stop her. She goes on.”

A pandemic is a sobering reminder of human frailty and vulnerability. It has unlocked greater uncertainty and fear, and made us reconsider our ideas about ‘control’ and ‘safety.’ It has also shone the spotlight on Sister Death, reminding us that we all have an appointment with her at a certain time. Ignoring that fact may create a momentary comfort, but will not serve us well in the long run. Maybe acknowledging her presence around our Table of Life makes us take a long, hard look at the stories we tell ourselves? …and the life we live according to those stories?

Entering Death

I pray that you will have the blessing
Of being consoled and sure about your death.

May you know in your soul
There is no need to be afraid.

When your time comes, may you have
Every blessing and strength you need.

May there be a beautiful welcome for you
In the home, you are going to.

You are not going somewhere strange,
Merely back to the home you have never left.

May you live with compassion
And transfigure everything
Negative within and about you.

When you come to die,
May it be after a long life.
May you be tranquil
Among those who care for you.

May your going be sheltered
And your welcome assured.
May your soul smile
In the embrace
Of your Anam Cara

John O’Donahue
To Bless the Space Between Us

2 thoughts on “Tombstones, Blackberries, and Sister Death

Leave a Reply