Rush out the door early with my husband ..... head off in two separate cars ... leave my car at the auto centre for its 100,000km service ...... drop him at work over the other side of town. Need to do some shopping before heading back to the home office for the day. What to do until the shops open at 9am? "Hmm.... it looks like quite a lovely view from that cemetery across the road, and I have just enough time to fit in quite a nice walk through the open space and tree plantings."
I felt really privileged to have time to amble through the cemetery on one of those picture perfect mornings! As I ventured further in, the structure of the cemetery impressed me. Dating from the 1860s, I discovered that early graves and headstones were grouped according to the professed religion of the deceased. Some of the signs read: Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Other Christian.
As the years unfolded, gravestones became more elaborate (turned into mausoleums in some cases) and were hedged about with iron fences. My heart went out to the family of an eight year old boy who had been laid to rest there. He had the most elaborate plot that I have ever seen.
Towards the end of the 20th century the fashion became the lawn cemetery. However I noticed that these were still divided into groupings by religion. More than half of Australians prefer cremation now, and this number is growing, but the lawn cemetery is still the preferred method for a lot of people, though not necessarily divided into religious groupings any more.
Then I got to thinking. It seems that our idea of God, our conception of heaven and earth has dictated how we bury our dead. It was clear in the early days that it was believed that our wealth needed to be displayed so that a manlike god could decide where we fitted into a mortal-like heaven. He also needed to know whether we believed in Him or not, if we were in high church, the chosen church, or none.
I was delighted to discover that we seem to have a much better understanding of our relation to the divine these days .... that we are all equal(-ly loved) and somewhat more unfettered by religious allegiances and divisions. That 55% of people now have no fear to cremate speaks volumes about how we view ourselves as not just a material organism, but (for many) as very much a spiritual, eternal being.
Moving on, the Easter period we'd just celebrated came to mind, and Jesus' resurrection from the dead after his crucifixion. This event in history is a beacon of hope that there is really such a thing as life after death ... maybe even life instead of death.
It's commonly accepted now that fear of the future can affect our health, everything from blood pressure, to heart rate, to mental stability. By some estimates, the stress underlying these conditions accounts for more than 60% of all doctor visits. It stands to reason, then, that ourexpectation about the future – perhaps even our ultimate future – could have a very real impact on what's happening here and now in terms of both mind and body.
In 2006, The HealthCare Chaplaincy decided to explore this idea further in a study on the link between our thoughts about the hereafter and mental health. They concluded that there's a "statistically significant inverse relationship" between belief in life after death and the severity of symptoms associated with several types of mental illness, including anxiety, depression, and obsession-compulsion. They also found that there was no significant association between mental stability and how often one attended religious services, suggesting that it's more about the belief itself and not the particular religious activity meant to inspire this belief.
Another study, conducted on both Roman Catholics and atheists, determined that although negative beliefs about death led to increased anxiety about health, there didn't appear to be any health benefit to having a positive belief about death. The responses were similar for both groups.
Although the results seem mixed, the evidence that our beliefs about death influence our health is significant.
On ANZAC Day the whole Australian and New Zealand community ponders the meaning of nationhood, of patriotism, and also the meaning of life ... and if there's life after death.
I'm impressed that we as a nation have celebrated the lives of each of our sons fallen in Afghanistan in recent years: as if to say, we will never let the huge loss of life of the two World Wars happen again. Each man or woman had unique talents, is precious to their family and to the whole nation (even to Afghanistan). Each has been nurtured as a child to be kind, intelligent, honest, fun-loving ... and so much more. Their unique individualities will never die, can never die.
You might disagree and think that death is the end of the story. Or could it possibly be a chance to have another go? Or might life really be ongoing and the continuation of the life we develop – the attitudes and actions we cultivate - day in and day out? This last scenario provides the greatest hope and, therefore, a positive, sustaining influence on our lives, including our health.
If considering the possibilities of eternal life challenges humanity's common assumptions, the potential payoff of better health is certainly profound and enduring.