Friday, February 4, 2011

Angels at Death

I recently discovered Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and spent an hour last week touring it online. The site is filled with beautiful, evocative photos of statuary that reminded me yet again how close death always is, and how different our responses to it are through the eras.

We forget, in our modern, technology-driven society, that death in America prior to the mid-twentieth century was a very real and immediate event. People died young back then. People died at home. Women died in childbirth, children died of diseases we have now largely banished, people died of infections and illnesses that have become distant medical memories.

We tend, in these modern times, not to talk or think too much about death, because it is "depressing." In these modern times, death is something that doesn't happen to most of us (or so we think) until we are old. We have conquered many common illnesses; we have even miraculously turned many incurable cancers into "manageable" diseases instead of imminently terminal ones.

But it wasn't always like that.

Woodlawn Cemetery reminded me how close death always has been. In the nineteenth century, death was personal. Death was someone who lived not in a far away country, but right next door or, all too often, right there in the house.

The statuary reflects the intimacy of death.

There are angels, but I am not certain I have ever seen angels with such piercing glances.

All photos are from the Woodlawn Cemetery website,
Angels who seem deep in thought about why they have been called to earth and captured in stone.

Angels who seem troubled that there is so much sorrow.

The writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, one of my favorites, was no stranger to death. Her firstborn child was murdered; her older sister Elisabeth died in her thirties of heart disease. In her journals, Anne wrote movingly of her losses. Trying to make sense of her son's killing, she saw death as "a little door" for such a little child. When Elisabeth died, Anne wrote that it was

a week of false hopes, and false dreams; all kinds of plans and schemes that now seems irrelevant - because Elisabeth died. Roads that set out and never got anywhere, half-finished sentences, half-drawn sketches of the future - and the whole thing insubstantial pasteboard to be knocked down in one breath.

Death is always just that close, just that little door away, just an angel's wing beat away.

While traveling last weekend, we received word that the adult daughter of very dear friends of ours had died suddenly. We got back in time to attend the memorial service.

Gail had struggled with alcoholism and mental health problems for many years. Someone found her body at home last week, just days short of her 57th birthday. It was a sudden, blunt end to a life that had come unraveled piece by piece over the years, despite the love and intervention and help of her family and friends.

The memorial service was spare and simple. The minister made us all laugh, recalling the brighter times and moods that were Gail. She then spoke quietly and plainly about the horrific illnesses that, ultimately, Gail could not conquer.

The homily was based on the first two Beatitudes

                    Blessed are the poor in spirit,
                    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
                    Blessed are those who mourn,
                    for they will be comforted.

The minister spoke of Gail as being poor in spirit, not as a chastisement, but as a reflection of the painful emptiness that alcoholism had carved out in her life. She spoke of Gail being now in the kingdom of heaven, her spirit renewed and whole. 

Surely any angel alighting on Gail's grave would resemble one of the Woodlawn angels, with a fierce, troubled gaze.

Our town was emerging from an ice storm that had paralyzed the area, but the church was full. The mourners had braved the ice and the cold to attend; the mourners had braved the hurt and the pain to assemble. Afterwards, we all gathered with the family to exchange memories and tears and laughter and hugs. There was an outpouring of love and support, from the teammates of the teenage son Gail left behind to her friends and the friends of her parents.

There was comfort for those that mourned.


Stayathomemummy said...

A very moving post. I am going to a funeral on Tuesday for a lady aged 44 who my family and I were very close to. Death has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it no matter what your age. I'm glad the service you went too went well x

Sharon said...

Wow. A very sobering post. 57 isn't very old at all. I can't help but think of death more and more as I get older. My parents read the obituary first when they open the newspaper. I guess as one ages, it becomes more real. My thoughts and prayers are with Gail's family.

P.S. I don't think I would be very comforted with angels that appear to be distressed.

April said...

@ Sharon: I like the thought that the angels are sharing the human pain. It is like Reverend Bill Croy said when he was diagnosed with ALS and had to retire: God was sitting beside him, crying also.

see you there! said...

What a beautifully written post on a subject that usually doesn't get discussed. I'm sorry for the loss of the young woman but I'm pleased that you told us about it in the way you did.


Anonymous said...

We have a son who struggles with this. Of our many children, it is his generous heart that is at the root of his troubles...We sometimes think that it is just a matter of time.

Are you familiar with Rilke's Duino Elegies? These are poems told from the point of view of an angel. This statuary brought the poems to mind.