When I was a child, school trips were called outings and eagerly anticipated by the entire class, as the high point of the year. Whether it was a visit to a local safari park or an Elizabethan manor house, our excitement knew no bounds. For most of us, the trips provided a tantalising glimpse of a world beyond the confines of sheltered home lives and forty-five years later, those memories retain their iconic status.
I was reminded of this recently when I prepared for a special trip – to visit my father’s grave. Living some distance away, planning was essential because there were many components to be considered. Visiting the garden centre to select a cornucopia of flowering plants, just as they came into bloom. Transporting my precious cargo some distance and keeping it protected from overnight frost, so every petal remained pristine. Carefully monitoring the daily weather forecast to ensure a clear, dry day because gardening in the rain is never fun. There was much to arrange and it was whilst absorbed in the minutiae of these preparations, that I was struck by a poignant realisation. The impending trip had elicited the same sense of joyful anticipation, which had been the hallmark of those treasured outings, from my schooldays.
Understandably, few people would associate joy with cemeteries, but that was my experience as I arrived at the graveside, bearing a kaleidoscopic array of immaculate primroses. It was impossible to decipher whether the delight belonged more to my father, or me, but a ripple of happiness was clearly tangible. It was like taking a sumptuous feast to a famished nation. We often forget that when people pass away, their souls live on. They want to be remembered and know they’re missed, which is why visiting the graveside is deeply symbolic. Not only does it honour the memory of a loved one, but it also acknowledges that the relationship continues beyond death. As Rumi said “Death has nothing to do with going away. The sun sets. The moon sets. But they are not gone”.
However, visiting the cemetery isn’t just about remembering the departed. It’s also a reminder of the destination that awaits us all. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) encouraged Muslims to visit cemeteries and think about their death. This wasn’t intended to terrify them, but to wake them up. Death is so often a taboo subject, but it needn’t be. We may as well get acquainted with it because we will all experience it. It can serve a salutary purpose, as it reminds us that time is short and we must make the most of our lives. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on our legacy whilst we still have time to do something about it. After all, material wealth may prove useful on earth, but it’s good deeds that will carry currency in the heavenly kingdom.
So, what can we do to prepare for this inevitable encounter and what lies beyond? Live deliberately and consciously. That can mean something different for each of us. But for me, it’s simple. It’s to live a life so rich in kindness, generosity and love, that one day – someone else will make meticulous preparations, before setting off on a joyful outing, to lay flowers at my grave.