It was a crisp, sunny morning for a run along Toronto’s Kay Gardner belt line. Having spent the previous day traveling, I was anxious to get moving. I turned on my tunes, hit the timer on my watch, and quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm.
I was relishing the beauty of the changing season. The rays of the autumn sun, low in the sky, filtered through the trees, and glinted off the rustling leaves as they slowly drifted towards the ground. Black squirrels foraged at the edges of the path. A cardinal caught my eye.
Before long, the high wall that marks the boundary between that section of the belt line and Mount Pleasant Cemetery came into view. In order to continue my run along the tree-lined trail, I needed to run through the cemetery.
This was not the first time that I had run through the cemetery. As on previous occasions, it felt a bit odd to be jogging alongside headstones. There was something vaguely unsettling and disrespectful about it, as if life were thumbing its nose at death. Yet, at the same time, it felt quite natural.
On this particular day, as leaves decayed underfoot, I was acutely conscious of the proximity between life and death. In the buildings and along the by-ways outside the cemetery wall and along the trail itself, we humans, like ants intent on a task, were consumed with the business of living. Unless we were in the act of burying our dead, the cemetery was just a pleasant park; its graves had nothing to do with us.
I began to speculate about the lives of those who were buried beneath the ground. Perhaps these graves that stretched out in every direction beneath my pounding feet had something to tell me.
Initially, I was intrigued with the individuals whose tombs bespoke wealth or importance. But then, the light went on. Death levels the playing field. Distinctions of wealth, race and status crumble. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, we all come to the same end. Death reduces; we are “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”.
Maybe because it was a beautiful day and I was feeling healthy and vigorous, the commentary in my head was curiously uplifting despite its morbid subject. I actually felt more alive.
I think that periodically reflecting upon our mortality has some benefits. It creates a sense of urgency about living well, which for me means to live more simply and with more mindfulness, compassion, gratitude and love. It can help us define the things that make life meaningful and prioritize the tasks that out of necessity occupy our time.
When I set out for my run, I had no intention of thinking about death. My purpose was much more mundane.
Yet, as I ran through the cemetery, its graves reminded me that “there is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven”, and that the fullness of life includes all of human experience.