Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Life is more than ashes

Death ends the chapter,

but Life is the name of the book

(A recollection on Ash Wednesday)


A. E. P. (Ed) Wall writes:

 To refuse to die would be more than a social

impertinence. It would throw off the scientific

rhythm of the universe. It would toss a monkey

wrench into the apparatus of the galaxies, and

challenge the very mind of the creator.


Death is designed as an inevitable consequence of birth,

providing needed closure for each of us. It is the kind

of closure that marks graduation from high school,

which is required before the graduate moves on to

higher education.


Death and eternity are mysterious, not mysteries

invented by Conan Doyle and not the

mysteries of gene and cell exposed in laboratories

like prisoners of undeclared wars. There’s the kind

of death that’s examined on an autopsy table, fixed

in time and place. There’s also an eternity that’s for

discoveries in space and hopes about time. Jesus

and Einstein speak a common language.


There could be no death without life. Life could reach

no conclusions without death. The system may be a mystery,

but it is part of the genius of creation. Suspense is necessary

to mystery, but fear is not. Nobody remembers being

born; nobody is told that birth is the leading cause

of death, inevitable rather than incurable, because

it is not a disease.


Life and death can be exciting. We are conditioned to

make the most of life and death, or to fear them.

Many never speak of death. Others deny death.


I was in my teens when I first heard someone deny

the permanence of life. An older woman said she hoped to

God — her phrasing —that there would be no life after

death. Her family, her education, her faith were all ad hoc,

she hoped,  and would vanish as she would vanish.

I wonder where she’s living now.


During my years in Hawaii I knew many

Buddhists, whose friendship included invitations to

speak at Buddhist celebrations and services. I

learned to appreciate Buddhist ideals and even

Buddhist controversies. Buddhism has its

denominations, even as Christianity and Islam and

Judaism have sects and denominations. Buddhist

concepts of life and death, of reincarnation and

transmigration, appeal to many. I’ve known

Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and other

Christians, including clergy, who believe in



My belief in God, the Eternal, the Holy, the

Triune Creator, Love itself, gives meaning to life

and death. Not everyone who is offered this gift

has unwrapped it. Christ Jesus gives of himself. As

newspaper carriers used to call out when they had

an armload of Extras to sell: Read all about it.

Because of that gift I believe in the seen and

unseen. I believe in the human body, ocean waves

and printed words. I believe also in gravity, radio

waves, thought, love and eternity. I recognize a

desire for a good life and its companion desire for

a good death.


Jack Wall, my dad’s brother, was born in the

1890s with a form of paralysis that was to end his

life when he was in his early teens. My dad and

another of his brothers have each told me this: The

family was gathered in the garden of their

Liverpool home. Jack, cheerful and much loved by

everyone in the family, was on his father’s lap.

Suddenly he said, “Listen. Can you hear them?”

No one heard anything unusual as Jack said,

“Can’t you hear them singing? Listen to the music.

They’re coming; they’re coming for me.” He

slumped dead on his dad’s lap. Other families have

similar experiences.


Maybe it is because I’m a writer that I think

of life as prose and religion as poetry. The

holiness in holy scripture is poetic. That’s why

myopic literalists don’t notice God’s bigness while

they squint at scripture with watchmaker’s loupe

and tweezers, magnifying some words and

plucking at others, like links pried loose to

disconnect a chain.


Death clobbered me when I was 10 years old

and living in my grandparents’ house. I was called

home from school, no reason given, and was

barely off the streetcar when I spotted the hearse

parked in front of the house. The place was

swarming with people and I headed for the privacy

of the basement to try to sort it out. My beloved

grandma, I knew, had died while I was choosing

true or false for a history teacher. I was numb, but

not at a loss for words. A memorized poem was

there for me,” The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not



When I heard about William Cullen Bryant,

a newspaperman who wrote poems, I was already

primed for his “Thanatopsis.”


So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of the couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.


Thanks, Miss Rector, Mrs. Bracken, Mrs.

Humm, Miss Featherstone, Mrs. Routon, Mrs.

Peters and all you who taught restless teenagers

with smiles and a beat.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson grabbed me as a

teenager when one of those teachers opened the

book to “In Memoriam” and especially to “Crossing the Bar.”


Sunset and evening star,

  And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

  When I put out to sea,


But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

  Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

  Turns again home.


Twilight and evening bell,

  And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

  When I embark;


For though from out our bourne of Time and Place

  The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

  When I have crossed the bar.


And then there was (and is) Walt Whitman:


At the last, tenderly.

From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,

From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the

   keep of the well-closed doors,

Let me be wafted.


Let me glide noiselessly forth;

With the key of softness unlock the locks—with a whisper,

Set ope the doors O Soul.


Tenderly—be not impatient,

(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh,

Strong is your hold O love.)


We who love life embrace it with enthusiasm.

We know that death is an element of life,

if not its fulfillment,.


Jesus died. Jesus lives. Way to go, Jesus!



Posted on Ash Wednesday 2013—

 reprinted from a 2005 edition of Wall’s Paper.

 Except for the quoted poetry, © A. E. P. (Ed) Wall.



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