For many years, I wanted to choose the stone that will mark the final resting place for my mortal remains. I didn’t want someone else to choose it. I have a friend, George Gonzalez, a famous stone mason, who lives at the top of the hill on the winding country road from our home in Bolinas, California, to the Commonweal site at the entrance to the Point Reyes National Seashore. In the field in front of his house, George has dozens of stones scattered about. I have often stopped to admire them. One day, bicycling to Commonweal, I stopped to look at his stones. Suddenly, I saw it, lying partially obscured by the tall grass along his fenceline. It was a large, almost spherical black granite stone which weighed, I later learned, almost a ton—2000 pounds.
I agreed with George on a fair price. A few weeks later, his two sons drove the stone out to the Bolinas Cemetery, a beautiful old cemetery dating back to the 1800s next to the small Catholic Mary Magdalene wooden church at the edge of town. One of George’s sons picked the stone out of the back of a stout old pick-up in a canvas sling on the blade of a forklift. He delicately navigated across several rows of graves with his brother’s guidance and deposited the stone on our gravesite. The gravesite is under a tall eucalyptus tree at the top of the cemetery. I’ve always liked high places and I’ve always liked to be at the edge of things. So this site suited me perfectly. It took several adjustments before the stone was settled just right. George came by in his white Lexus to look at his son’s handiwork and the site my wife Sharyle and I had chosen. It was just right.
A place to reflect on life
Ever since the stone was placed, visiting the stone has become part of my life. Sharyle and I often stop at the stone on our way home from our Sunday brunch dates in Point Reyes, a half hour north of Bolinas on Route 1. I often stop myself and just sit in my car perhaps 150 feet from the gravesite and contemplate the stone. Sometimes we wander through the cemetery and look at the gravestones of our many friends there as well as the old stones. The names and dates on the older stones have often become indecipherable.
We won’t inscribe anything on this stone. We may have smaller markers in front of it. I think mine will have a Latin phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book Nine—Sic itur ad astra. “Thus is the way to the stars.”
Whatever your beliefs, this much is true. We are all stardust. And when the earth is ultimately engulfed by a dying sun, it is to the stars that we will all return.
An examined life..and death
There is an old saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is not possible to live an examined life without confronting our feelings, beliefs, preferences, and plans regarding death and dying. There are few things in life that can take us deeper into the true meaning of our lives. I’ll end where I started.
Who are you?
Where do you come from?
Why are you here?
Where are you going?
And in what, if any way, are you accountable for your life?
These are the great questions. If we reflect on them with the deepest compassion for ourselves and for those we care about—and make good plans for how to leave in a kind and dignified way—our time in the great departure lounge on our way back to the stars may be better.
As Ram Dass, the American spiritual teacher, once said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
I hope these thoughts have been useful. Keep only the parts that help you. Let the rest go.
Find what matters to you now. Live it. The rest will take care of itself.
Many people don’t have a safe place to talk about death and dying. We have devoted much time to exploring death in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program for four decades. And we have woven that insight into CancerChoices.org. I encourage you to read the sections of CancerChoices.org devoted to death and share them with your loved ones.
See links to helpful resources in our Dying Well handbook ›
We also welcome you to join our sister program Healing Circles Global’s virtual circles on Death and Dying: Impermanence and the Gift of Life ›
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