22 October 2008

"Oh Lord, this must be Heaven..."

My first conception of Heaven was a graveyard. When I was a child, I lived in the vicinity of several cemeteries, one of which was right next door to the playground where my classmates and I used to go for recess. All that separated the basketball court and the swing set from row after row of marble headstones was a chain-link fence that the more athletic among us would occasionally climb over to retrieve the odd lost basketball. My understanding of death and eschatology was considerably limited, but I figured out fairly early on that the cemetery was where the dead inevitably wound up. In retrospect, that curious arrangement seems a poignant reminder of the thin line that separates life here on Earth from the great beyond.

One of the earliest of my dreams that I can recall with any notable clarity was a dream wherein my parents decided that they wanted to be rid of me. Having been turned out of my home, I wandered outside. A great light now came from the sky, and as I looked up I saw the blue sky part like satin curtains, revealing an idyllic cemetery, the kind one might expect to find in a churchyard on an island off the coast of Britain. What I remember most of my vision-within-a-vision was a monolithic black headstone, in the shape of a cross. For all I knew, it might well have been my own headstone. As I beheld this sight, slack-jawed in wonder, I was overcome by a great sense of longing and, more poignantly, a desire to be there, in that cemetery.

Ever since I had that dream so many years ago, cemeteries have held a profound appeal for me. Whenever I pass one, I always feel an inexplicable desire to go inside and to wander among the headstones, reading the names inscribed upon them and wondering who these departed souls were. One of the more interesting twists of fate in my life is that my first lessons in driving took place in a cemetery.

My conception of Heaven (and indeed of the afterlife in general) has changed greatly over the years. I tend not to think of the afterlife so much as a material place as a state of mind. I think of death and the afterlife as an eternal sleep. If the soul is at peace, its dreams will be peaceful. Heaven, then, is a kingdom of sweet dreams--serene images either remembered from one's life experience or imagined. The comparison of sleep and death is as old as human life itself. Indeed, the connection is present in the very word cemetery, which derives from the Greek κοιμητήριον, meaning "sleeping place."

The only thing I want from life is for my soul to be at peace when I die. I can forgo all the material symbols of success and good life, so long as I can be die a truly peaceful death, and take my place in the cemetery to sleep the eternal sleep and dream eternal dreams.

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