Maybe this happens to everybody. Maybe not everybody at 33 precisely, but everybody at some time or another. Or, if not everybody, then to enough people that it wouldn’t be considered abnormal. It could be that people think about DEATH obsessively for a while and then it just fades into the background of everyday life—like it was before. Like maybe it should be.
But it wouldn’t let go of me. It hung on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I enjoyed thinking about DEATH. It’s not like I was fantasizing about committing suicide in some novel way or something. No. In fact, the topic scared the hell out of me. But for some reason I just couldn’t let it go. The fear didn’t stop me. In fact, the fear seemed in a way to be driving me forward. It was so consuming that there for a while I had to wonder if maybe there wasn’t something wrong with me. You know, something wrong with my head.
Now I’m not a psychiatrist so I don’t really know what constitutes mental illness. How is it defined? If you are mentally ill are you always mentally ill from the day you’re born until the day you die, with your illness exhibiting itself more at some times than at others? Or do you just “go crazy?” And how far do you have to go to be considered having “gone crazy?” Does impaling oneself on a fence while delirious from pneumonia qualify?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But after a whole lot of thought on the matter, I am convinced that I was not, am not, mentally ill. I don’t think I was going crazy. I think that I was just beginning to think about things in a different way. And thinking about things in a different way feels, well, weird. Add to that the fact that society has often labeled people who thought in a different way as being crazy. Actually, I suppose that’s probably society’s definition of crazy: one who doesn’t think the way that everyone else does. And since I was a member of that society when I first started really thinking differently it is perfectly understandable that I was gripped by a paranoia that maybe I was just going nuts. But now I know better.
The first thing that seemed “off” was when I started going to cemeteries. I think most people like to avoid cemeteries, vampires excluded of course. But I found myself drifting toward them more and more often, pulled by a strange fascination that I didn’t understand. Several times a week I would find myself standing outside the cemetery gates, hands shaking in the pockets of my overcoat, yet my mind felt the pull, felt the strange allure dragging me inside this place once again. This peaceful place. This beautifully landscaped place. This was where DEATH lived.
Where I found myself especially drawn was to the new graves — “fresh,” as they say. Here was a person who until very, very recently had been a person. Had been breathing. Had probably been walking and talking. Had been an actual human being—and we’re talking only a few days ago. This was a living being who would not appreciate being placed in a box and buried under six feet of clay. The thought of being buried alive is terrifying yet a few days ago that is exactly what would have happened to these people. But now they didn’t mind it?
Or did they?
What if when you’re dead you have an awareness that you are being buried? God, that would be terrifying. I started wondering what if dead people are just in a state that they can’t express their horror? Kind of like lobsters. You know, people throw live lobsters into a pot of boiling water. But what if lobsters could scream? Could you imagine being in a fancy restaurant and hearing “aaaaaaaaaaaah!” from the kitchen? I can’t imagine that we would do that to lobsters if they could scream. Or what if, one better, what if lobsters could talk? Then in addition to the screaming, you’d get something like, “aaaaaah! Get me outta here! Oh, you dirty bastards! Aaaaaaaaaaah!”
Luckily that doesn’t happen. And luckily when we pile the dirt onto a deceased person we don’t hear screams of horror and noisy banging and clawing from the inside of the coffin.
I spent a lot of time at cemeteries. So much time that I became something of a cemeteriologist. I discovered that there are different varieties of cemeteries and they evoke different feelings. The older cemeteries are interesting because you realize that these people have been gone a long time. A hundred years ago this person was a person just like you or me, going about his daily life. He had his problems to work out. He had his joyful moments. And then one day that’s it.
He’s put in the ground and now a hundred years have passed. Not only is he gone, all traces of him are probably gone. The house he built has probably been bulldozed over to make room for a new mini-mall. All of his possessions have gone onto the trash heap. And the worst thing is that everyone who ever knew him is gone as well. No one remembers this man. He’s gone. Forever. And a hundred years have gone by and a hundred more will go by and a hundred more. Yet he’s not coming back. And that’s the feeling that you come away with from an old cemetery. An image of the relative pointlessness of that tiny little time spent alive as compared to the giant chasm of eternity which passes by. And passes by. And passes by...
A newer cemetery gives you more of that feeling that I was talking about earlier—that realization that this death happened in the present. Not a hundred years ago but last week. While you were driving to work last Tuesday this person was dying. DEATH is here. It’s always with us. And any moment DEATH may damned well be coming to wrap its bony fingers around you. It’s here. It’s now. It’s all around you.
Stand beside a new grave and the smell of the freshly turned earth really hits you. Sometimes, I would kneel down and pick up a handful of this loose soil—disturbed only recently. I would stare at the dirt in my hands, running it through my fingers, letting it fall to the fresh grave of the latest victim of mortality. And my thoughts floated...
Another kind of cemetery is a veterans’ cemetery. Row after row of identical headstones. The thoughts that you come away with from one of those are more along the lines of “what a waste.” You really dwell on the thought of war. And how stupid it seems that all of these people had to die. And why? Why do we need to kill one another to work out problems? Those are the thoughts that greet you at a veteran’s cemetery. Also the enormity of it. That many of these people died at the same time. Born in different places, leading different lives, some happy, some sad, only to come together at this one moment in time to be snuffed out in one bloody, brutal stroke. Sudden, enormous waste.
Then there’s the type of cemetery that you don’t find everywhere: the celebrity cemetery. Now this is a damned odd thing because you actually see tour buses making their way through them. It’s kind of obscene but there they are. Yet there is a certain attraction in seeing famous graves. And I guess the thought that comes up there is one of no matter how rich or famous you are there’s a plot waiting for you somewhere. You can’t buy your way out of it. Whether you’re talking about the Egyptian pharaohs or Hollywood movie stars it all ends the same way. DEATH.
The point of all the preceding was just to let you in on where my brain was heading at the age of 33. Up until then, I had led a fairly normal, definitely successful life. I had been by all outward societal measures happy. But then it all changed.
Now the thing about obsessing over DEATH is that it leads you toward other thoughts. The kind of thoughts that you don’t usually think because you don’t usually head down that path. The big thoughts. Thoughts about things like, oh, say, God. Certainly DEATH and God go together. Sounds odd to say it that way, but I think that’s an accurate way to put it. Some people say that God is life, but if that’s true then you also have to think that God is DEATH.
Do you not?
If you credit God with life, well, you have to blame him for death too. That’s assuming of course that there even is a God to whom can be assigned credit or blame. And those kinds of thoughts pop into your head as well. What if there is no God? No Heaven? No Hell? What if when your life stops you just stop? Stare down at enough graves and you can’t help but come away convinced that maybe that’s all there is—dirt, dust, decay...
So we can see how my thoughts flowed from DEATH to God to existence to Hell to even extraterrestrials. Okay, I didn’t mention the extraterrestrials, but those thoughts were there too. Once your thought process heads down the path of thinking about those things that we all avoid thinking about, it becomes like a snowball effect. At least it was for me.
Still there’s that feeling. That feeling that things are drifting around in your head and if they would just link together you might feel a whole lot better. But they refuse to link. They just won’t do it. They floated and floated and floated and floated...
Maybe if there had been someone to bounce things off of, then maybe that would have helped. I don’t know. Maybe discussing these things with someone else might have prevented them from growing so big in my mind—and in hindsight, what a tragedy that would have been! To have missed out on all of this!
Anyway, I thought about discussing things with my wife but, I don’t know, it just didn’t feel right. Maybe that was a marital problem. Maybe if you really love someone then you should be able to discuss anything with them. Hell, I found it impossible just to ask her to try new sexual positions, let alone tell her that I felt like I might possibly be losing my mind and that my eternal soul might not be far behind. I couldn’t do that. However, I don’t think that would qualify as a marital problem. I loved my wife. She loved me. We were close. We were just different people. And we were the kind of people who didn’t talk about things like that.
So who could I talk to? For a while I thought that maybe a priest, or a preacher or a Buddhist monk or something. Surely someone like that had put more thought into these big questions than had most ordinary people. Of course even if he had, he would have a “slant” wouldn’t he? It’s like a car salesman might be an expert on cars but he’s going to steer you toward the car that he’s selling. So would a preacher lead you to his religion’s explanation of the big questions while there might be other, very different answers out there.
So who could I turn to who might help me try to figure things out? How about the Internet? I could go about this the same way that I would research statistics for my job. But the first problem was: what am I looking for? I went to a search engine and just stared at it. “Enter the word you would like to search for,” it said. Well, what the hell am I going to enter there? “The big questions?” I don’t know. I think that this calls for narrowing the search a bit. But how can I narrow the search when it’s the big stuff that’s exactly what I’m looking for?
I was, quite simply, lost.
Remember a while ago when I said that the first odd thing—you know I shouldn’t use the word “odd” because that brings us back to that sticky definition of “mental illness;” instead I should say the first thing that was not ordinary for me. The first non-ordinary thing was the cemetery visitation. But that was something that nobody noticed. Since I didn’t tell people where I was going and since I didn’t stay there for unusual lengths of time, my little hobby didn’t attract attention. It was my little secret. If it was a clue to some mental slippage, I was the only one available to see that clue.
The first non-ordinary thing that anybody noticed was when I went for a walk one Saturday afternoon... and didn’t come back until Sunday night.
That was noticed.
Classic novels and e-books devoted to finding yourself...
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Neal is also a musician, and this collection of quiet, lyrically contemplative songs was written and recorded during the same period of his life as the writing of The 33rd Year. As you read, listen on Spotify or download (or preview) from