Living in the Cemetery – All Saints’ Day in Poland

Some reflections from the Poland years (2015-2017):

“There was a cross in every direction. And there weren’t just four directions, like now.”
– Wiesław Myśliwski, Stone Upon Stone

In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, there were dozens of people selling candles and flowers at each of the entrances leading into the Lipowa cemetery. It was easy to notice this happening, because this cemetery is right next to the main mall in the city. This reminded me of how Plutarch had praised the Spartan Lycurgus for doing away with superstitions by allowing citizens to bury their dead within the city which, he said, had the effect of making the youth familiar with such sights so that they were neither confounded by death nor fearful of it. 

In these days, I observed all of the flowers and candles being placed on the graves in anticipation of the feast days – seeing sisters in their habits scrubbing the graves of the members of their communities who had gone before them, and men raking the leaves between the tombs, and students and graduates decorating with flowers and candles and rosaries the graves of the university’s founder and first rector, Rev. Idzi Radziszewski as well as that of Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – who struck me as among the cemeterary’s leading protagonists. 

On All Saints’ Day, my friends and I went again to this cemetery. As we walked, we passed many others who were visiting, walking slowly and reverently. Has anyone ever run through a cemetery, anyway? The setting seems to slow you down, as if to teach that rushing through life will only bring you more quickly to your grave. 

I saw a young man holding his grandmother’s arm to assist her. I saw a father carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. I saw an elderly couple sitting across from one another on benches before the graves – the husband taking a photo of his wife on a smartphone. I saw a boy in a wheelchair, staring at a grave with his family surrounding him. And I saw small children playing and smiling, hoping to get a candle or bouquet to place upon a grave or to contribute as part of a larger memorial. This is the most life I have ever witnessed in a cemetery, I marvelled to myself. It is also the most human cemetery I have seen. I glanced at the Latin inscription – Non omnis moriar – not all of me will die, or, I shall not wholly die. And I also thought to myself – not all is death. Among the dead, the living walk, play, talk, laugh, and visit.

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Curious about Costumes

Once, when I was 7-years-old and my brother Evan was 4, my mom brought us to the cemetery on Halloween.

We had been driving by anyway, and so she considered it a good occasion to introduce us to the upcoming feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days even as our attention was fixated on costume-wearing and trick-or-treating later that evening.

My mom began, “This is the place where people are buried.”

“What?” my little brother asked incredulously. “You bury the person in the ground?”

My mom clarified, “The body is buried in the cemetery because you don’t need your body when you die because your soul goes to heaven to be with God. The body is like a costume.”

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My brother, forever

On October 15, which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, I reflect on how my parents helped me to share the experience of our family’s grief at the loss of my baby brother, Brandon Joseph Achtman, who died when he was 7 months old.

I was only two-and-a-half years old when Brandon died. But, year after year, I continued to learn more about my brother’s brief life, his death, and that he remains forever my little brother.

Even now, as an adult, I grow in my relationship with this brother of mine. The fact Brandon existed continues to affect, influence, and rouse me – in many ways as ongoingly as the fact of my other brother, Evan, with whom I grew up all along and who is still alive today.

Below are some pages from the Special Care Baby Book in which my mom and I wrote and drew throughout my childhood to remember and cherish baby Brandon.

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The Opposite of Throwaway Culture

The author of the book Resisting Throwaway Culture has laid out some concrete proposals for how to do so at the end of his newly published book, Losing Our Dignity.

Like Pope Francis, author Charles Camosy agrees that it is our cultural consumerism that is contributing to a “throwaway” mentality extending toward human beings.

The opposite of throwaway culture, Camosy suggests, is to “live out a counterculture of responsibility, encounter, and hospitality.”

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Retiring the Idea of Waiting for Retirement

When I was in high school, a family friend of ours died quite suddenly and unexpectedly in her mid-50s. She was the mother of a close friend of mine and our moms had been good friends throughout our whole lives.

This woman was very devoted to her family and to her work. She seemed to do everything in order. And yet, she was also someone who seemed to always be waiting for retirement to do several of the things she longed to do most.

She would often say, “When I retire…” and express her hopes and dreams for what she would do with greater leisure, time, and money.

It was striking, then, when she died relatively young because one of the things that hit me most as a high schooler was that she was never going to do these things she had put off.

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Jordan Peterson challenges us to have strength at funerals

This evening I finished reading Jordan Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.

In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”

After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.

Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.

Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.

He writes:

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The loss of a whole world

In a collection of letters by Henri Nouwen, I came upon this one that he wrote following the death of his mother:

OCTOBER 25, 1978

Dear Jim,

A few days ago I returned from Holland, where I buried my mother. Only five weeks ago she was with me in New Haven. She returned four days afterwards with my Father after the internist had discovered a tumor which caused the jaundice. Two weeks later she was operated on, a week after that she died. I am still in a daze. Everything seems different to me and I am slowly rediscovering the world which she loved so much. She has been so much part of my life that I have to do some real relearning. I am spending a still week at a retreat center trying to let my mother’s death reform me and lead me to new fields. It is all very intimate and very deep, very sad and very joyful, very beautiful and very painful. I am trying to write a little bit about these last few weeks, but I am still too close to all that has happened to do it well and with the necessary peace of mind. But I keep trying. It seems at this moment my way of letting her spirit come to me. I am still somewhere between Easter and Pentecost not knowing what really has happened. Keep me in your prayers and pray for her. Nobody has ever been as close to me as she was and never did I lose anyone whom I loved so deeply. Somewhere life needs to be rediscovered. But I am sure that her death will mean many new births for me.

Best wishes,
Love,
Henri

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A patron saint of persistence

Today I spent some time contemplating St. Benedict since his feast day is usually celebrated on July 11th and he is a patron saint of the dying.

What came to mind, in thinking about Benedict however, is the legendary story of his last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.

Here is the splendid story as recounted by Saint Gregory the Great:

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A Final Birthday Card

Around New Year’s 2015, my grandfather had been hospitalized and was in quite severe pain. I visited him in the hospital during the holidays but had left the city by the time his birthday came around a couple weeks later on January 17th. I just came across the following letter that I wrote to him, which ended up being my last birthday card to him. When I had visited him at the beginning of the month, he told me that the pain was so bad that he wished he could die. This was obviously difficult to hear and so, in writing to him, I felt greatly responsible to give him some encouragement.

Here is what I wrote:

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