Unlike the great majority of people who have lived on this earth, I’ve never known where my body will go when I die. Most human beings in most cultures throughout most of history have known from early in their lives where their bodies are likely to go after death. But I—and many of us who show that we’re grown by leaving our homes of origin—don’t know where, literally and figuratively, we’ll end up.
This is, of course, a mark of freedom. Here in the twenty-first century in the United States, I could go anywhere, live anywhere, die anywhere. I was raised with the family I was born into in the Midwest and then chose to move with my chosen family to the Pacific Northwest. Who knows where I’ll go next and where I’ll be when I stop going?
My wife’s father is buried in a small cemetery in rural Kentucky alongside his parents and his parents’ parents and so on, back a couple hundred years. He knew soon after he was born where his body would end up, though he lived for many years somewhere else. But when I ask his daughter, my wife, if she’ll be buried in Kentucky next to her father and ancestors, she says, without much gravity, “I don’t think so.” I don’t yet ask where she will be buried, or if.
This not knowing and maybe not caring about where our bodies will go is clearly a sign of mobility and freedom. Of choice. And it is also a sign of being unmoored from our past and disconnected from place. If I had known from early on where my body would lie after death, how might I have lived differently? If I knew my bones would lie next to the bones of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and also next to the children and grandchildren of my daughter and son, how might I live differently today?
My mother was buried on the edge of Chicago, a city that only became her home when she was in her late thirties. None of her children live in Chicago or will be buried near her. Her mother and father were buried on the edge of New York, which became their home in their thirties. Their mothers and fathers were killed in Poland, and the final resting places of their bodies are not known. Their not-knowing, unlike my not-knowing, was not chosen; the people who brought their lives to an early and violent end deliberately deprived them of this knowledge in order to further demean them. And yet here I am, free and unthreatened, headed by my own choice toward a strangely similar end—my body separated from the bodies of family members who preceded me, far from any place we shared. Because of freedom and autonomy rather than persecution and cruelty, neither I nor anyone else knows where my body will end up.
I have lived as if my life—and not the body I live in—is all that I will leave behind. I’ve lived as if my life will come to rest in the people I’ve known, but not in any particular place. With no ground to return to, no ground beneath, would it be wrong to say that this life—my free, modern, mobile life—is groundless?
I’m older now, closer to death and more attuned to the deaths of people I love. Airy dreams about what my life might become make room for something earthier—something dark, soft, and quiet. It feels strange to dream of a place to rest. But right, perhaps, to dream of a ground.
TagsDeath and Dying, Family, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Place
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