It was a crisp, sunny morning for a run along Toronto’s Kay Gardner Beltline Trail. Having spent the previous day travelling, I was anxious to get moving. I turned on my tunes, hit the timer on my watch and quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm.
I was relishing the beauty of the changing season. The rays of the autumn sun, low in the sky, filtered through the trees, and glinted off the rustling leaves that slowly drifted towards the ground. Black squirrels foraged at the edges of the path. A cardinal caught my eye.
Before long, the high wall that marks the boundary between that section of the beltline and Mount Pleasant Cemetery came into view. In order to continue along the tree-lined trail, I needed to run through the cemetery.
This was not the first time that I had run through the cemetery. As on previous occasions, it felt a bit odd to be jogging alongside headstones. There was something vaguely unsettling and disrespectful about it, as if life were thumbing its nose at death. Yet, at the same time, it felt quite natural.
On this particular day, as leaves were decaying underfoot, I was acutely conscious of the proximity between life and death. In the buildings and along the byways outside the cemetery wall and along the trail itself, we humans, like ants intent on a task, were consumed with the business of living. Unless we were in the act of burying our dead, the cemetery was just a pleasant park; its graves had nothing to do with us.
I began to speculate about the lives of those who were buried here. Perhaps these graves that stretched out in every direction from where I ran had something to tell me.
Initially, I was intrigued with the individuals whose tombs bespoke wealth or importance. But then, the light went on. Death levels the playing field. Distinctions of wealth, race and status crumble. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, we all come to the same end. All that we amass gets left behind. Death reduces; we are “dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
Maybe because it was a beautiful day and I was feeling healthy and vigorous, the commentary in my head was curiously uplifting despite its morbid subject. I actually felt more alive.
I think that periodically reflecting upon our mortality has some benefits. It creates a sense of urgency about living well, which for me means to live more simply, and with more mindfulness, compassion, gratitude and love. It can help us define the things that make life meaningful and prioritize the tasks that out of necessity occupy our time.
Coincidental to my visit to Toronto a few years back, the Royal Ontario Museum had an exhibit on Pompeii. I spent several hours wandering amid artifacts that told the story of a community abruptly destroyed, lives suddenly snuffed out; artifacts that left me pondering once again the fleeting nature of human life.
A carbonized half loaf of bread and a bowl of figs were stark reminders that life can change in an instant. An exquisite gold and emerald necklace delicately wrought and in perfect condition was one of the artifacts that exemplified human creativity and our appreciation for beauty. Like many of the other items on display, it also represented for me the human quest for wealth and status, and the age-old practise of ordering human society based on the two.
The exhibit ended with the poignant and sobering display of plaster casts of individuals who had perished. Rich or poor, important or insignificant in the eyes of society, all those in Pompeii suffered the same fate; buried under four metres of ash, their final resting place was an extraordinary cemetery.
When I set out for my run, I had no intention of thinking about death. My purpose was much more mundane. Yet, as I ran through the cemetery, its graves, like the well-preserved and stately artifacts of Pompeii, reminded me that “there is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven,” and that the fullness of life includes all of human experience.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.