When I travel, I seek out cemeteries during daily exercise, for the quiet they offer as much as for the history chronicled there. Grave markers can say a lot about a place, its past and its culture etched into granite. Headstones also tell stories about life and death, compelling me to reflect on the people buried beneath.
Back in March, when the Covid pandemic was beginning to unfurl in the United States and the news about its destruction felt so dismaying, I found comfort walking my dog through our town’s pioneer cemetery each day. Such an act might seem macabre, save that the gravestones there gave me hope in humanity’s resilience, the cemetery a reminder that people have been living and dying in my hometown for more than 150 years.
In this practice of cemetery walking, I share infinity with Christiana Peterson, author of the fabulous new book, Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Messages from the Mystics. Like Peterson, I see the space devoted to death as also symbolic of life: in cemeteries, we are confronted with the beauty of being alive, and the mystery that comes with death. It’s a mystery our culture often refuses to face, Peterson argues; and while her book was written almost entirely before the Covid pandemic, this contemplation of death—our cultural refusal to face death, the transformative power that accompanies those who do—is prescient, Peterson’s voice prophetically calling us to “awaken to death” as a way to live more profoundly.
Now more than ever, we need this voice, because we are surrounded by death. And yet, too many persist in denying the deadly virus. Since my cemetery walks in early spring, more than 300,000 fellow Americans have died of Covid. In some states, the death rate is numbing; in South Dakota, for instance, one in 800 residents have lost their lives to the coronavirus. For black and brown people, the rates of death from Covid are disproportionately higher than for white people, who benefit from structures that preserve health, including having easier access to life-saving health care.
What has astounded me most about the 2020 pandemic is this denial, a willingness to sacrifice elderly and vulnerable populations to death, presumably so that others—luckily younger and healthier and with access to health care—can freely live. Conversations about mask mandates and social distancing turn on this presumption that some deaths are less significant than others; churches who persist with in-person meetings convey that their religious liberty is more important than protecting their vulnerable congregants, who are welcome to worship alone and at home until the pandemic has ended.
I am astounded, but I have also been enraged: at those who deny Covid’s deadliness, yes, but also at those who have politicized this pandemic, transforming even the simple sacrifice of wearing a mask into a statement about one’s freedom and one’s unwillingness “to live in fear.” What seems like fearlessness to others feels like recklessness to me; what seems like expressions of liberty to others feels like selfishness. Most days, I see this while scrolling through social media, angry at the folks who question Covid’s reality, including people in my home community who rail against a governor for instituting mask mandates and lockdowns to deal with skyrocketing Covid numbers.
Perhaps instead of rage, though, I need perspective and empathy, and Peterson’s book offers me this, in spades. What I appreciate most about Awakened by Death is Peterson’s ability to put our relationship with death into historical contexts that starkly reveal our current cultural discomfort with death. Early mystics encountered God in a time when death surrounded them, the Black Death being only one of many ways those in the Middle Ages might meet their end. Peterson explores the art and literature from that era, as well as the words of Christian mystics who grappled with death directly, seeing this grappling as a way to draw closer to God, rather than avoiding the mystery of death altogether.
Awakened by Death also traces the shifting responses to death that have occurred in America over the last few centuries. Even architectural design once acknowledged the presence of wakes, where families would care for and honor a dead body in a home; over time, this sacred and familial ritual has been abrogated by far more austere funeral homes, where bodies can be embalmed and prepared with make-up to look still alive but sleeping.
Too often, our collective fear of death means we marginalize those who are suffering and on the precipice of dying. Aging bodies are reviled because they signal a kind of entropy; we are a culture obsessed with youth, Peterson writes, as a way “to numb ourselves against the mystery of our eventual decay.” We are conditioned to long for the certainty that death can be held at bay, rather than facing the uncertainty that life offers us, our end an enigma knowable only to God.
As I read Peterson’s deeply reported exploration of death, I was challenged to interrogate my own angry response to the pandemic, my lack of compassion for anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers and all those who persist in behaviors that have prolonged this pandemic, putting my loved ones at risk. Those who deny Covid’s deadly reality, or who insist that the vulnerable stay home so that everyone else can live, reflect an unwillingness to contend with sickness and death; an inability to look at and name human suffering; perhaps even an insistence that one’s own body will not succumb to the disease, despite all countervailing evidence suggesting we don’t fully know how Covid attacks people, or who will be stricken. This perspective suggests that even wearing a mask might be too much a symbol of our finitude, a reminder that we are all frail, all vulnerable. Denying the mask is not so much a response borne of freedom, but of fear.
Peterson’s Awakened to Death compels me to consider my own uncomfortable relationship with death; more significant to the moment, her words challenge me to transform my rage to empathy for those who claim they will not live in fear of Covid and death. I must wonder: are they paradoxically so afraid of illness and death they cannot—will not—accept that Covid has the power to kill them? What might happen if they accepted the reality of death, and do everything possible—even curtailing their personal liberty for a time—to make sure that others might live?
My aging canine has taken her own turn toward death, and we no longer take walks to the cemetery together. Yet Peterson’s Awakened to Death has given me hope in the same way springtime walks had, affording me insight into the resilience of humans throughout history and reminding me that our understanding of death—as our understanding of life—is itself transient.
In her epilogue, composed in spring 2020, Peterson writes that “the prophets and mystics of our church are needed more than ever, offering a theology that cares for the body, for our neighbors, for the earth, words that give truth, but also offer the strong flames of hope in such a frightening time.” Peterson’s book itself offers this prophetic voice, convicting me that in being awake to death, we can more certainly save others’ lives, as well as our own.