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Karl Giberson, Ph.D

Karl Giberson, Ph.D

Posted: May 3, 2010 10:55 AM

My Dead Relatives in the Sky

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On Saturday my mother was laid to rest beneath the rural soil of her beloved New Brunswick countryside. It was a peaceful setting, with a drizzle of rain and some sunlight that finally got the upper hand as the ceremony ended. The wind whined a bit coming up the hill, and birds chirped in the background.

My mom loved nature and its many creatures; it was a special passion that she passed on to her children and grandchildren. When Mother Nature flexed her muscles with blizzards, great winds, or thunderstorms, my mom would often call me to the window, to sit on a chair and look out, as if a movie were playing on the glass. Our kitchen window held a homemade feeder where the birds of winter fed on suet and seeds. I remember on one bitterly cold day, Mom brought me to watch a chickadee stand on one leg as it pulled the other against its feathers for warmth.

My mom died four months ago in the bleak midwinter, when deep snow and ground as hard as iron made it impossible to dig a grave. Today's late April burial is early by New Brunswick standards. About 25 people stood around the grave, some with umbrellas, all with warm coats. Mom's great-grandson scampered about, happily oblivious. We sang four verses of "Amazing Grace," and a country pastor read from the Bible. He made reference, as Christians always do, to the belief that such partings are temporary and that we would see my mother again in Heaven.

The pastor spoke these familiar words of hope with the same straightforward assurance as when he announced that my sister was providing lunch a bit later for everyone at her home not far from the graveside. In his mind, perhaps, both future events were equally straightforward, and he was untroubled affirming them.

The road that ran past the graveside had few cars on it, and I think two went by during the ceremony. My mother used to ski to school along a similar road, in the days before buses. She often told me, with great nostalgia, how the kids from up and down that road skied together to their one-room schoolhouse. The kids farthest from the school would start first and the closer ones would watch from their windows and join the group as it came into their yards. Gradually a parade of laughing children, wearing hand-knit scarves and mittens and breathing white clouds into the frosty air, would be lined up, skiing together to a school heated by a woodstove along a well-worn path through the snow. The younger children would sometimes fall behind and be rescued by a big boy at the front who would ski back and carry the straggler to the front of the line.

In my mind's eye I picture my mother as a seven-year old straggler struggling to keep up on her hand-made wooden skis -- eventually handed down to me -- and then being rescued by a hero twice her age who would take her to the front of the line. To be Canadian is to love winter and stories of winter.

As I stared at the oak coffin about to be lowered into the ground, I wondered what it would be like to see my mother again and share once again our mutual affection for the glories of Canadian winters. For the last years of her life she fought a long war of attrition with Parkinson's disease and died a little bit every day. The day she officially died was little different than the others; it was just the particular day that the cold winter wind pulls the last leaf from the tree.

The graveyard was surrounded by trees preparing their spring garb. The Christian belief in eternal life is often compared to the cycle of the seasons. We look ahead to new life in the spring even as we see the cold taking its toll in the fall. In faith we look ahead to new life in heaven.

Belief in eternal life, though, is hard for me. My mind has been largely taken over by science and has trouble getting itself around ideas so far outside the normal course of events. But I still believe...

In an exchange with a prominent "New Atheist," I argued that belief in God provides a "richer and more complex view of reality" than the purely materialistic belief that the physical world is all there is. My affirmation, not surprisingly, was ridiculed as a fancy way of saying "after I die I'll be able to meet my dead relatives in the sky." This isn't what I meant at the time, of course, but it came to mind, nonetheless, as I stood beside my mother's coffin and wondered if I would someday "meet her in the sky."

My atheist critic, speaking for so many of his materialistic brothers-in-arms, says that such a view does not enrich reality: "It's impoverished," he says, "by adherence to magic and superstition." Perhaps he is right, but I don't think so.

My belief in God grounds a hope that I might one day see the wonderful woman in that coffin again. This hope does seem magical to me, but it's not superstitious. Standing at my mother's graveside with that hope seems so much richer than standing there without it.

In memory of my mother, Ursula Giberson (1929-2009).