Dog walker

Richard had been dead three days before his wife even noticed his dog was missing. It was an expected death, to be sure. He was 92, after all. They had made most of the arrangements years ago when they left that church, the one they had always gone to, once it started having modern music instead of the good old-fashioned hymns they had grown up with. If they changed something as big as that, no telling what they’d change next. They might say it was okay for men to start wearing dresses. You never knew.

But since they’d always planned on being buried in the churchyard they had to make other plans now. They considered burial in the backyard but thought twice when they remembered trying to put in the garden years ago. Too many rocks! Emma would have a hard time digging it, and they might not be able to count on the children to help. They were always busy – too busy it seemed to notice when their family needed help.

Jack was Richard’s dog through and through. Sure, he’d answer when Emma called him to dinner, but Richard was the one who pampered him, who slipped him treats underneath the table at dinner. Jack was a Jack Russell, feisty and friendly, and loyal as the day was long. Richard thought it was a clever thing to name him after his breed. It didn’t matter what he was named, it turned out. Jack would’ve followed Richard no matter what he had named him.

They had buried Richard in the grand old Catholic cemetery on the hill overlooking downtown Nashville. That location had been the outskirts of the city when it had been consecrated, but that was a century ago. Sure, he wasn’t Catholic, but it turned out some of his family was buried there and since they were Catholic, that was good enough for the keepers of the cemetery. Emma had found this information out when she was doing genealogy research as a favor to the kids. It was a simple matter of asking at the cemetery (and a donation of course) and space was reserved in the family plot for the two of them.

The house had finally cleared out from all of the visitors and Emma finally had time to breathe. She noticed little Jack wasn’t around. She called, but he didn’t come. He didn’t even bark. Oh well, he’ll have to fend for himself. She can’t be tending to everyone she thought. Who was going to look after her, she thought mournfully? She was so tired after all the hullabaloo of the funeral, and putting up the family that had come to pay respects. They were underfoot for a week! She meant to put Jack out of her mind. But then again he was her last connection to Richard. Where was that dog?

Jack had followed Richard. It was as simple as that. Not his body, of course. That wasn’t who Richard really was. That was just a shell after all. Jack had followed the real part of Richard, the only part that mattered. Jack, like all dogs, could see souls. Dogs knew the soul of the person, could see how it was, and more importantly in this case, where it was.

The moment Richard left his body, he walked silently through the walls of his bedroom right to the corner of the barn where Jack was. The family had gathered by that time, awaiting the inevitable. But they, those somewhat interlopers, had banished poor Jack to his summertime lair in the barn, where he liked to keep an eye on the chickens. He would have rather been by Richard’s side in that time of transition.  Jack was the one who had been by him every other day, unlike his children and grandchildren. Who were they to send him off? He was more family than they were. Family has little to do with blood and a lot to do with behavior.

Richard hadn’t been in a state to argue at the time, but now he could do something about it. He’d taken three days to die, to slide out of his body like one would slip out of work clothes. It wasn’t easy at such an age. He’d gotten used to wearing it, and taking his leave of it was harder than he had expected. Being in a body was a habit he’d had all his life and now he had to give it up, like smoking or drinking. It was for the same reason, of course to be free, to be unencumbered, but just the same it was hard to make the change.

But now he was free of the weight of his body, free to go wherever he wanted, however he wanted, and what he wanted most right now was to go on a wander with his best pal, Jack.  He found him in the barn, and it took some effort to get Jack to notice Richard.  He couldn’t whistle or call to his friend like he wanted – one of the disadvantages of an otherwise perfectly pleasant experience, to his mind.  He wondered what all the fuss was about being dead that he’d heard all his life.  Of course, the people who were complaining about it hadn’t ever experienced it.  It was like complaining about going to visit France before you’d even gotten on the plane.  You had no business having an opinion about a place until you’d gone there. But death, unlike France, was a one-way ticket, and all the residents of that unknown land weren’t the ones saying disparaging things about it.  No, that was the living doing that, and what did they know?

Richard had to learn to use new ways of interacting with his old friend now, but fortunately Jack had been waiting for him.  He was surprised to hear Richard call to him, speaking heart to heart, but not see him.  And then he understood that the change had happened, that it was time.  Jack wiggled and shivered over all his body, not just wagging his tail but his whole self. He was overjoyed to be with his master once again, glad to know that he was free of his failing body. They walked out of the barn together, and towards the setting sun.  They had many mountains to climb together.


Them Bones

How long was she supposed to wait? How long was long enough to know that she’d been cured of her phobia of death?

He could wait all day. He could wait forever, in fact. Well, forever meaning until his bones finally crumbled apart, became just calcium and not bones, in the way that boulders became pebbles over time. It all decays, after all – all that is physical – and that was exactly why she was here for this treatment.

Mary Frances’ fear of death was pervasive. She wasn’t simply afraid of her own death or of the deaths of her parents or spouse. She was afraid of all death, of all change. Any evidence of time passing rendered her inert, full-stop. She no longer could go to doctor’s appointments downtown because of all the change happening there. Too many new apartments! Too many new parking garages! All of her landmarks were gone, well, all save for the Krispy Kreme and Sitar, the Indian buffet. They thankfully never changed and still had actual parking lots right next to their buildings. She wondered how long it would be before some developer snatched them away.

Even the season’s change through her for a loop. She dressed for the weather she wanted and not what was forecast. Her friends were always listening to her complaints about how hot or cold it was, and their efforts to get her to dress more appropriately fell on deaf ears.

Her friend Theresa heard about a new treatment for people who were afraid of change. It was based on something that young Buddhist monks had to undergo as part of their novitiate. They had to spend several days with a corpse to learn non-attachment. She talked Mary Frances into the program by saying it was a fashion show. She was told she’d take all off her clothes and be measured as precisely as possible, and then bespoke clothes would be produced for her. Everything would finally fit perfectly for a change. This sound like a grand idea even though it involved an alteration of her rigid routine. Even though going to this appointment was a change, in the end it would mean no more change – no more having to go to the shop to buy clothes, then to the tailor to have them altered…it was a great trade-off.

But things hadn’t ended up as she had planned. She was welcomed into the office, with its stiff high-back old-fashioned sofa. Mary Frances finally identified it as a camelback and not a Chesterfield as she had first suspected. It was a bit drab but serviceable. She noted that the window was high over her head, like at the gynecologist’s office.

After she removed her clothes in the attached bathroom, she was instructed to return to the room with the sofa. She was disconcerted to notice that there was then someone else in the room – or at least the remains of someone else. By the time she recovered herself the door had been locked. She was stuck with the skeleton. She beat upon the door with her fists but to no avail. All the therapist would say was “It is for your own good”. Over and over she repeated this, regardless of the question from Mary Frances.

After an hour of pacing the room, Mary Frances needed to sit. However, the only option was that couch. There was no way she was sitting with a skeleton! And propriety also demanded she not sit on fabric while naked. That just wasn’t hygienic, and certainly not ladylike. It was two hours later when she finally sat, after a small tray of food was pushed through a low slot in the door. She’d not noticed that before. Why would she? She hadn’t suspected she’d be trapped here.

The therapist made sure she wanted for nothing. The temperature was a pleasant 74° and there was a half-bath attached to the room. Mary Frances considered hiding out in there initially but thought twice about that idea. The room was cold with its porcelain tile and really just too small for staying in very long.

She finally decided to sit on the sofa anyway. If they didn’t care enough about her to provide her with an alternative, they deserved what they got. But there was still the matter of the skeleton.

Something shifted in her after she finally got settled. The skeleton started to look less intimidating. Her years of making art became the way out of her fear. She started to observe the skeleton, not as a reminder of death but as a sculpture, a collection of lines and shadows. She started to look at it – really look at it – and see how beautiful it was. She became an observer, no longer possessed by her fears, but now able to be objective and present.

When the therapist finally opened the door she found her client contentedly gazing at the skeleton, instead of recoiled, huddling in the corner. The treatment was a success.

The red doors. Abandoned project #1


And tomorrow I will go into the smaller door, the lesser door. Always and forever the grand door, the steps leading upwards, but not to the light, no, never that.

You’d think so, with the wide entrance, the columns and the arch. You’d think so, but you’d be wrong. That is the way that leads to the world.

This world is the world of doing, of broken promises and prom dates and first kisses and grandparents who die. The whole ball of wax is there for the taking.

But the other door? The plain one, the one you can’t see in until you’d reached the top step, the landing? It isn’t for nothing that you have to take eight steps to get there. Too high for anybody in the room to peer in. It is the best kept secret after all.

Door not locked, not even there, even. Not even any hinges for the door. Never were. And that light! Warm and low, like a late afternoon in September, when the skies are clear and the summer heat is a memory.

No, that doorway you only go through once, because there’s no coming back, no backtracking – not as far as anyone knew. There could be a mind wipe, a re-cycling, an up-cycling, but we’d never know.

Yes, tomorrow it shall be.


(Photo from Pinterest. Bramham House, England. Copyright belongs to the photographer.)

Poem – Lost mothers, daughters


We all

are daughters

searching for our mothers.

We all

are mothers

searching for our daughters.

We all

are lost,

and have lost.


Sometimes our arms

have to wrap around the shoulders

of someone else, someone

we are not related to

to comfort ourselves

and to comfort them.


Sometimes we have to be

for each other

what we don’t have

for ourselves.

Killing Time


I found these cigarette butts in the canister outside the library. I’d not heard of them, but I found the name amusing and disturbing at the same time. Time is the one thing that cigarette smokers don’t have. They smoke it away. They are literally killing time when they smoke. Worse, they are killing time in multiple ways. At first, it means not doing anything meaningful with their lives during the fifteen minutes they take to smoke. It ends with years cut off their lifespan. In the middle, their quality of life is lessened (why am I using the passive tense – they lessen it themselves, it isn’t done to them) by the diseases they get – cancer, emphysema, heart disease, etc.

When I was growing up, cigarettes were known as “coffin nails” or “cancer sticks”. Perhaps something like that would be more honest. But this is pretty good.  Maybe it will make them think about what they are doing to themselves.

These are discount cigarettes, so they most certainly have more “filler” and less tobacco in them. Thus, they are even more dangerous to smoke. It seems logical that if someone wants to save money, they’d quit smoking altogether.

The sad part is that the poor suffer even more when they smoke because of the unnatural ingredients in their cigarettes. (Again, why am I using the passive voice? Smoking is a choice. Nobody forces you to smoke.)

My memorial service

(Here’s an exercise – create your own memorial service. Death is the one true equalizer. It will happen to all of us. Better to create your service now and save your loved one’s the trouble when the inevitable happens. You can edit it later if your change your mind, but get it started. And share it with them now.)

Song – “Oceans” by Hillsong United

Psalm 107
Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
His faithful love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the LORD proclaim
that He has redeemed them from the hand of the foe
3 and has gathered them from the lands—
from the east and the west,
from the north and the south.
4 Some wandered in the desolate wilderness,
finding no way to a city where they could live.
5 They were hungry and thirsty;
their spirits failed within them.
6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He rescued them from their distress.
7 He led them by the right path
to go to a city where they could live.
8 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
9 For He has satisfied the thirsty
and filled the hungry with good things.
10 Others sat in darkness and gloom—
prisoners in cruel chains—
11 because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the counsel of the Most High.
12 He broke their spirits with hard labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
13 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He saved them from their distress.
14 He brought them out of darkness and gloom
and broke their chains apart.
15 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
16 For He has broken down the bronze gates
and cut through the iron bars.
17 Fools suffered affliction
because of their rebellious ways and their sins.
18 They loathed all food
and came near the gates of death.
19 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He saved them from their distress.
20 He sent His word and healed them;
He rescued them from the Pit.
21 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
22 Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving
and announce His works with shouts of joy.
23 Others went to sea in ships,
conducting trade on the vast waters.
24 They saw the LORD’s works,
His wonderful works in the deep.
25 He spoke and raised a tempest
that stirred up the waves of the sea.
26 Rising up to the sky, sinking down to the depths,
their courage[i] melting away in anguish,
27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and all their skill was useless.
28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and He brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a murmur,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They rejoiced when the waves grew quiet.
Then He guided them to the harbor they longed for.
31 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
32 Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people
and praise Him in the council of the elders.
33 He turns rivers into desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
34 and fruitful land into salty wasteland,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
35 He turns a desert into a pool of water,
dry land into springs of water.
36 He causes the hungry to settle there,
and they establish a city where they can live.
37 They sow fields and plant vineyards
that yield a fruitful harvest.
38 He blesses them, and they multiply greatly;
He does not let their livestock decrease.
39 When they are diminished and are humbled
by cruel oppression and sorrow,
40 He pours contempt on nobles
and makes them wander in a trackless wasteland.
41 But He lifts the needy out of their suffering
and makes their families multiply like flocks.
42 The upright see it and rejoice,
and all injustice shuts its mouth.
43 Let whoever is wise pay attention to these things
and consider the LORD’s acts of faithful love.

(New Testament reading)
Matthew 14:22-33
22 Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. 23 After dismissing the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone. 24 But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. 25 Around three in the morning, He came toward them walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s You,” Peter answered Him, “command me to come to You on the water.” 29 “Come!” He said. And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out His hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 Then those in the boat worshiped Him and said, “Truly You are the Son of God!” (HCSB)

“Walking Towards Jesus”
I love the story of Peter walking on water. Sure, we remember Jesus walked on water, but so did Peter. This means that the miraculous is available to all of us, if we have our focus right.
The disciples were by themselves. Times were getting tough. There was a big storm that had pushed them far from safety. Our lives are like that. When we are alone the storms of life beat up against us and push us even further away from security.
Then they see Jesus walking towards them at three in the morning. The light isn’t great at that time of day. It isn’t quite night, but it isn’t quite day. Everything looks strange. Also, at three a.m., I’m pretty sure the disciples are shot. They’ve been up all night because of the storm. They haven’t had a good night’s rest because of all turbulent sea and the wild sounds of the storm. Then they think they are seeing something. Why would they expect to see Jesus walking on water towards them? This is a whole new experience.
But this is Jesus. He takes the shortcut. He walked straight towards the disciples rather than waiting for them to get safely to shore. This is Jesus. He walks through danger, straight towards us, right when we need Him.
Of course they were afraid. They were worn out from the storm. They were afraid they were going to die. Then this ghost comes towards them? Things have gone from bad to worse. But what does Jesus do? Immediately he calls to them, telling them to have courage and not be afraid.
That again. “Don’t be afraid.” The same words that have been echoed throughout the Old and New Testament. Don’t be afraid. Don’t freak out. It’s OK. These are good words to remember. God is in charge. Everything that happens is part of God’s plan. If we believe in a loving God, then we have to trust that God’s got it under control, so there is nothing to worry about.
But then something even more unusual happens. Peter asks Jesus to command him to come out on the water to Him. I find this fascinating. Why did Peter ask to come out there, rather than asking Jesus to come closer, towards the boat? This seems like the last thing I’d do. Terrified, worn out from a terrible night on a boat, seeing things – yeah, I’m going to stay in the boat, thank you very much. Getting out of the boat seems insane. The boat is the only sure thing in this picture. But Peter doesn’t see it that way. Peter asks Jesus to command him to come out to Him.
The Jews have a big concept about commandments, in that God sanctifies us by His commandments. By God giving us commandments to follow, we are made holy. Peter didn’t say “ask me to come to you”, he said “command”. The result would have been the same, but in this case he’s giving over control. Peter would be doing the walking on the water whether he was asked or commanded, but by being commanded, there is a measure of authority and force. The fact that Peter gave Jesus the authority, by asking him to command him, means a lot.
Jesus’ command is simple. Just one word. Just “Come!” Jesus doesn’t waste words, or even really command or ask. Just one word is all Peter needs, and he’s right over the side of the boat, and he’s walking towards Jesus. On water. In a storm. At three a.m. It sounds crazy. But it happened. And it still happens today. Not necessarily people walking on water, but doing things that they never thought they could, because they are walking towards Jesus.
Peter was doing fine until he got distracted. He saw the strength of the wind. He got afraid. How often does this happen to us? We start off fine, and then we start to think about it. He didn’t look at the waves, or think about how deep the ocean was. That didn’t scare him. Surely he saw all that before he got out of the boat. The wind got him. He lost his focus. He stopped looking at Jesus and he started getting afraid. This is the secret, here. The more we look away, the more likely we are to get afraid.
Then Jesus reaches out His hand and rescues Peter, marveling at how little faith he had, wondering at his doubt. Peter has been with him a long time and seen a lot of amazing things. Surely he should be able to get this, right? Nope. Fear is an old habit, and hard to break. Perhaps Peter’s doubt didn’t come from a lack of faith in Jesus, but in his own ability. Peter was used to seeing Jesus perform miracles. He wasn’t used to doing them himself.
I think God came to us in human form, not only to know what it was like to experience human life from the inside, but also to watch us. God learned a lot about our limitations by not only being one of us, but by living among us.
We are fragile, frail, and fallible. We fear a lot. We fall a lot. And every time, Jesus is there to rescue us. Jesus took Peter’s hand and pulls him up, out of the water, out of danger. This is Jesus, every time. He’s there to save us from ourselves, from our fears and doubts. This isn’t just a story of something that happened back then. This happens every day. Jesus is real, and present, and with us, now. Get out of the boat, and keep walking towards Jesus.

(Song chosen by the person officiating)

“Gone from my Sight” by Henry Van Dyke
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, ‘There, she is gone’
Gone where?
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me – not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, ‘There, she is gone,’
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, ‘Here she comes!’
And that is dying…
Death comes in its own time, in its own way.
Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.

Meditations on death

burial 073116

I’ve been thinking quite seriously about what I would like done with my body when I die. I’ve read a lot of books recently about the options, and learning about what to insist on and what to refuse. This information will help me if my husband dies first, so I will be a well-informed consumer.

Most of us don’t think about this at all, and that is the problem. When we refuse to face the reality of our death, we are unable to embrace the beauty of our life.

Perhaps you’ve heard the terms “green burial” or even “conservation burial”?  This artwork is about my mediation on that.  These burials refer to the body being put into the ground as simply as possible – no embalming, no fancy coffin, no vault.

Many modern cemeteries (often euphemistically termed “memorial gardens” these days) insist on a vault to help with subsidence.  All grave sites cave in somewhat, and that makes it more difficult to mow with large equipment.  Most cemetery owners don’t want to take the time that is required to maintain graves by back-filling with dirt occasionally or mowing with small lawnmowers.

Also, some consumers are under the impression that the are preserving their loved one’s body for eternity with all they do – embalming, buying a metal sealer coffin, using a cement vault.  They are unaware (and often don’t want to be aware) of the reality of death – once a person has died, the body starts to decay.  Nothing will prevent that.  In fact nothing should prevent that.  If we say “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” we should mean that.  Our bodies should return to the earth when our souls return to heaven.

If people are concerned about having a pristine corpse for the resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Jesus, then they need to understand that a God who can make people out of dirt can restore us however we are.  It isn’t right to try to preserve the body unnaturally.  This can become idolatry, where we are more concerned with the outer shell – the body, than the inner essence – the soul.

It is not right for a family to go into debt in a vain effort to preserve their loved one’s body.  In general, the funeral industry charges way too much for its services, and they often rely upon the ignorance of the consumer – the  grieving family  – and their guilt and social pressure to “do the right thing by their loved one” and give them the best (read – most expensive) burial possible.

The “death positive” movement is trying to make informed consumers of the public so that we don’t feel pressured into buying what we don’t need.  It also aims to have people understand the very reality of death – that it is unavoidable.  Choosing not to make your own funeral arrangements is to leave that inevitable decision to those you love.

Not many generations back people took care of their own dead at home, and some are reclaiming that.  A number of federal and state regulations make this difficult if not impossible to do for the average person.  I recommend doing research on this before the need arises if this is of interest to you.

Embalming is not required by any federal, state, or local law.   Funeral directors will heavily insist upon it however if there is to be a viewing, or if the viewing is to be longer than an hour – or away from the funeral home.  The longer the body is at room temperature, the more decay will occur.  Most people in our generation have not seen someone look dead.  They look like they are peacefully asleep.  The funeral industry thinks we need this “memory picture” (their words) to help us accept death.  This makes no sense, as the person does not look dead.  I believe that they have as an industry lulled us into a delusion.

(Warning  – this gets a little hard to read from on out, yet provides important information to consumers.)

Not everything the funeral industry attempts to push on a grieving family is a good idea.

Embalming is an unnecessary and toxic procedure, using chemicals that are known carcinogens.  It is far more invasive than most of us realize.  It is not just replacing the blood with embalming fluid.  That is the first part.  The second part involves using a tool called a trocar to puncture the organs in the abdomen, suck out the fluids in the abdominal cavity, and then refill with more embalming fluid.  All that is left of the person’s body is a facade.  When the second coming occurs, they won’t have a body to resurrect.  You’re better off not embalming at all.  Also – all the bodily fluids that are sucked out simply go down the drain, untreated, into the municipal sewer system.  If prevention of the spread of communicable diseases is the concern, direct cremation is the best way.

Likewise, a sealer coffin is a terrible idea.  It is promoted as a way to “keep Mother Nature out” – but by law the funeral home cannot say that it will preserve your loved one’s body.  It can’t.  With air unable to escape, anaerobic bacteria increase their work and the body decays that much faster.

Vaults or grave liners were originally intended to deter grave robbers.  While that is not the concern it was, it has become common as part of burials.  They are promoted as a way to protect the body from the elements, but they are not permanent.  They often crack, letting in water.  The body ends up swimming in liquid – from inside and outside.  While there are no laws insisting on vaults or grave liners, most cemeteries will insist on them.  This can add several thousand dollars to the cost of the burial.

Meanwhile – you might be thinking cremation is a good idea.  The amount of energy required to cremate a body is equivalent to driving 600 miles.  The average cremation is anywhere from 1400 to 1800 degrees, and lasts 2 to 3 hours.  Afterwards, the body is NOT reduced to ash, as some might think.  The bones are placed inside a machine known as a “cremulator” that crushes them into little pieces, much like a blender.  All told, cremation is a violent process.  Also, the emissions from that are often not cleaned – going straight into the air.  Toxic mercury from fillings goes directly into the atmosphere.