Second Opinion: Epiphany in a graveyard

Dr. April Sanders finds the answer she needed while visiting famed Parisian cemetery Pere Lachaise

We boomers never think about death. We are too busy celebrating the fact that collectively, we are the luckiest, wealthiest and longest living generation ever born. We are the luckiest generation because we were born between 1948 and 1964, when vigorous postwar era economic expansion gave us a world with a strong labour force, high job security, generous pension plans, and guaranteed social security. We are wealthiest because we found reliable jobs directly after high school or we paid for our post secondary education at a fraction of today’s cost. We bought our first home cheaply only to see that initial investment debt mushroom into a surplus as property values increased. The boomers are living longer because of modern medicine and the many advancements in medical therapy that offset the afflictions of old age. As a result, we have more retirement funds than any previous generation and the health to enjoy them. Along the way, we have taken more than our fair share from the system and the planet and left less for the generations that follow.

The boomers are a generation that ignores death simply because we are too busy enjoying our luck, wealth and health. The sad reality is that we, too, will die. From the first breath, we share the same inexorable pathway to life’s end. I am a boomer, but I do think about death because I have seen death more often than most. In three decades as an MD, I have witnessed the ephemeral nature of life, and the cumulative experiences have provoked sober thought and sometimes painful reflection. In my 30s I composed a will, revised it when the children came, and will keep it up to date as the future unfolds. My husband and I have had conversations about dying. We have given each other permission to move on should the other die, to remarry, or at least not to end life alone.

In spite of thinking I had dealt responsibly with the business of dying, I have recently discovered that there are parts of death that I had not considered. To my surprise, the epiphany occurred in a cemetery at a time when I have never felt more alive.

This summer in Paris I visited Pere Lachaise, a serene 140-acre cemetery in a city of 11 million, and the final resting place of many legends and heroes. I was there to visit, among others, Jimmy Morrison’s grave. Morrison is a touchstone for my youth long gone and I wanted a moment to recall a magic time before he tragically died in a Paris hotel. What I did not expect to find there were the young men who also came to pay their respects. I found them in the early hours, kneeling silently at Morrison’s headstone while they played Light My Fire on their iPhones. Born decades after Morrison’s passing, these young men needed to bear witness to a time in history that they did not share, but wished to remember.

I walked the uneven cobbled pathways past the winged sepulcher of Oscar Wilde and took a minute to thank him for making me laugh.

Edith Piaf was alone, and I could imagine the strains of her beautiful music inside my head. Chopin was not far away and I marveled at his genius and industry. The rich legacy that is the body of his work was accomplished in the 40 odd summers he spent on this planet.

Interspersed among the famous people buried in Pere Lachaise, are many ordinary folk — the spouses, children and parents of ordinary Parisians. I watched family members quietly tend the graves of their loved ones. It was these small acts by ordinary citizens that led to my epiphany.

I have never been in favour of burial after death, but in Pere Lachaise I could see and feel the benefits of a cemetery. A gravesite is not a place for the dead, but for the living. It is a physical place to reconnect with a loved one. As I walked Pere Lachaise in the peace and quiet, I wished that I could visit my own mother in the same way. I recalled being 21 and for the first time, being taken to my father’s grave. No one in my family had taken me before, so raw was their own sense of loss for this man, my father dead at 26, a man I can barely recall. I witnessed their grief, but for me, the visit brought a certain peace. Although I have not visited my father for many years, I did replace the weathered headstone last year, and the act provided me some small comfort.

That day in Paris I thought about my parents, and I thought about my husband and myself. And then the questions came. What if my husband died and I remained? Where would we talk if he were cremated? If I needed his advice, how would I reach him if he were scattered on the wind? On a cobbled path in Pere Lachaise I realized with clarity and intensity, a personal desire previously unknown. Should I outlive my husband, I would want to bury him in such a place as this, a solid place, one that I could visit, one that would be a touchstone for the memories of a life shared, a place to anchor my experiences with him in a present and future I faced alone.

Dr. April Sanders is a physician in Vernon, B.C., with Sanders Medical Inc.