Of the soul
“Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Oddly enough, it’s my belief in the sentiment expressed here by Longfellow that underlies my enjoyment of visiting graveyards and cemeteries. When one believes in the immortality of the soul, the sadness or fear often associated with burial grounds is lifted, and the wonder of each human life is seen with sharpened focus.
Nowhere is this more true than at Arlington National Cemetery. I did my walking there one beautiful sunny day last week, because I wanted to see the wreaths on display. Over 300,000 people are buried at Arlington, and beautiful fresh evergreen wreaths with large red bows adorn most of the graves. This yearly practice is quite an accomplishment. I walked several miles inside Arlington that day and did not see a single headstone without a wreath.
Something about the sight of so much evergreen amid the winter landscape is a fitting reminder that death is a universal threshold we all must approach, and we need not fear it. Faith and hope are well represented by the bright red and green amid the subdued winter landscape.
The headstones at Arlington recall the lives of citizens of all ages and stations; those who were born two hundred years ago, and infants who died in recent years; supreme court justices and statesmen, two U. S. Presidents, soldiers of every rank, and their families. Some tell poignant stories, and some give us only the name and life span of the person buried there, leaving the details to our imaginations.
The beauty of the hills, trees and quiet pathways, and the monuments stretching as far as the eye can see are a reassuring sight for grieving families, as well as a refreshing break from the clamor of the city for tourists visiting from all over the world. Walking through the well-kept grounds, I was happy that Jeff has decided he wants to be buried there, which will mean that Matt and I, too, will be laid to rest beside him.
I hope this doesn’t seem like an odd meditation with which to begin the year. Remembering the brevity of earthly life is a great way to strengthen our resolve to live fully and well for whatever time remains for us. As the old quote says, today is the first day of the rest of our lives. Let’s recognize each day as a real and earnest gift, one we receive with gratitude and celebration.