One of my very favorite poems has been making the rounds over on Tumblr. While often attributed to “anonymous”, with several versions floating around the internet and elsewhere, the creator Mary Elizabeth Frye’s definitive version of “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” is as follows:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
This reminded me of Cat Chapin-Bishop’s No Unsacred Place post from a few weeks ago about green burial as well. I especially thought of the line “I would like you to find me in fresh strawberries, blood-red beets, tenacious bitter dandelions, and the shape of a robin’s breakfast”.
I also thought of Aaron Freeman’s essay, You Want a Physicist to Speak At Your Funeral. It may seem a little odd and out of place in a discussion about spirituality and the afterlife, but here’s a choice line from this beautiful piece of writing: “And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you.” Yes. This fits as well.
I cling to these poetic-prose statements because they’re so rare. Most of the time when people speak of what happens after death, at least in sentimental terms, they talk about heavens or paradises, places where you’ll get to see your loved ones who have gone before you, even your deceased pets. Near-death testimonies aside, we don’t have any hard evidence that these post-mortem places exist, or even that there is anything once our brains go dark for the last time.
Why do we tell the bereaved to remember these places, then? Because when someone we care for dies, we miss them terribly, and we wish they were there with us. But since we can’t see them any more, or touch them, or speak with them, at least not in the way we used to, we hold onto a hope that once we die we’ll be reunited. In fact, the afterlife is sort of the big reset button that so many religions and spiritualities promise us. All the crappy things that happen in life are supposed to be left behind once we shuffle off the mortal coil (assuming you’re not of the belief that you’ll get punished for any wrongdoing, no matter how small, from this life). Regardless, the afterlife is seen as some degree of escape from the realities and challenges of this world, and most afterlife discussions almost exclusively focus on incorporeal things.
Yet it is the raw physicality of another sort of life after death that comforts me when I think about my mortality and that of those I care for. I can guarantee that the temporary collective of molecules that has made up my body—and perhaps my entire being—will fall apart over time after my death. All these bits and pieces, nutrients and atoms, that have been in countless beings and places and things for billions of years, will continue their journeys into new conglomerates. There is, of course, no way to track where individual molecules go, just as right now I can’t trace the ones that leave me through elimination or exhalation or shedding of dry, dead skin cells.
But the general process is what’s important. This body, this form that people have held and touched and loved and interacted with, will disseminate back into the wider cycles of the universe. I will feed other living beings. I will become the building blocks of mountains, or perhaps coral reefs. I will join rivers and the ocean. And who knows where I’ll be? I like to think that my loved ones will remember me not in a specific raindrop, but whenever the sun-parched land is soaked with the autumn’s first showers.
You see? I will still be here. There’s no need to wait til your own death for me to be around. My imprint is saved in the “constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever”, as Freeman said.
And why waste that opportunity waiting for something else that may or may not ever happen? We don’t know for sure if there’s an afterlife, and we won’t know until we each reach that threshold. But we do know that all of us, alive or dead, are a part of that ongoing series of cycles of creation and destruction, matter and energy, that has been occurring since the Big Bang.
I hope that when I have my own green burial, that my loved ones will stand over that piece of land, touch the grass, and know that I am there—and that I’ll be forever expanding my influence from that place onward. Who knows where the molecules that were me for a while may end up next? When I am gone, look to the birds and the snow and the wind to see me again, and remember what I once was.