The tradition of All Souls Day originates from the abbot of the monastery of Cluny who decided that all monasteries connected to Cluny needed to commemorate the dead in a liturgical manner on the day after All Saints Day.
My grandparents lived in a country house that was located next to the Roman Catholic cemetery, the Protestant cemetery was adjacent but it was small and separated by a heavy wall of other graves on the Roman Catholic part. It had its own fence, with rusty hinges, and made a loud grinding noise when opened. The fence rarely opened, as Protestants were a small minority in this village.
It was a long time ago since I came there. My grandparents had died, the stylish old house had been razed to the ground, my grandmother's richly blossoming garden was buried underneath sand and paving stone, no more buzzing bees around my grandfather's hives, the chestnut bees in front of the house cut down, all that was left was part of the wall that separated us from the rear neighbours, which I used to peek over the edge of to see the butcher's horse. The village had moved with the times: an unimaginative shopping centre with some houses took its place. What was left here for me?
I walked onto the Roman Catholic cemetery. The old bench was still there with the view on the large cross which showed an image of a suffering Jesus. I wiped away some autumn leaves and sat down.
The man who came up the path, I estimated him to be in his sixties, was carrying flowers. When he passed, we politely exchanged greetings. He walked a few more steps, hesitated, then turned around and asked if he could sit next to me. It was the only bench near the path. I made some space. He put the lilac-coloured chrysanthemums between us.
“Are you here for All Souls Day too?”, I shook my head. “I was brought here by nostalgia, I used to come here a lot as a child.”
“My wife is buried here.” So the flowers are for her, I thought.
“Last year on November 2nd, I was here too and when I walked up this path, something went wrong with me.” I tried to make it to this bench, but I woke up in a hospital bed. A heart attack. I was found unconscious in front of this bench. However, I had an experience... Have you ever heard about an NDE?”
“You mean a near-death experience? As a twelve-year old boy, my husband nearly drowned. He said about a beautiful light, and there was so much peaceful love in that light. He said he was sure that God was in this light. He wanted to go there. He surrendered, but was then pulled out of the water. After this experience, he was never afraid of death again. Did you also see a beautiful light?”
“Definitely did. That cross here, I saw it bathing in light a year ago, but without the suffering Jesus. I saw something behind it, let's call it a road to Heaven, and there he was, Jesus, with a lamb in his arms. Such an overwhelmingly loving image. I clearly heard a voice who said: ‘I'm the good Shepherd.’ I wasn't a pious person, not even religious, I didn't want anything to do with it. But this experience made such an inexpressible impression, something completely changed within me.”
“Amazing”, I said and also looked at the cross statue.
“I wanted to share this experience with my children, friends and fellow doctors, but no one thought it was a truthful account. Seeing Jesus? That was crazy. Everyone had their own explanation. Explanations I'd given myself as a doctor when it concerned someone else, but when it happened to me, I felt abandoned by them.”
“A physiological reaction to lack of oxygen, psychological stress, a hallucination, that's what they told you, right?”
He looked at me surprised.
“When my husband said about his experience, that disbelief always reared its head with others. What he experienced as a boy left such an impact on him though. I therefore looked up books about it. It turns out a lot is written on the subject. Near-death experiences were already known in the past long ago, but this will not be news to you.”
“I also read up on the subject. Especially because I got so much criticism about it. The research by cardiologist Pim van Lommel on near-death experiences had strengthened me in the conviction that it wasn't just my imagination in this place. Do you know the psychiatrist Kübler-Ross? - He didn't wait for my response. - In the eighties, she spoke up about the NDE of dying. During that period, I didn't really know what to do with it and even Moody's research was put aside with the thought ‘I'll check it out when I've retired'. I had a busy practice, long days of work. I couldn't get some quiet time in my life, I was that kind of person that just kept going. Until...”
He briefly paused, when I glanced at him, I saw he was moved.
“You know, there has to be another dimension where there's neither distance nor time. When the awareness of yourself would detach from the body during the period of unconsciousness, that's possible, and then ends up in this other dimension, then the different aspects of NDE would all come together.”
“What are you thinking of?”
“Seeing your old life in a bird's eye view, for example, or experiencing it again, or also seeing visions from the future. Patients who are being operated on and see their own surgery from above. That autoscopic experience of seeing your own dead body and its revival has regularly occurred.”
He looked ahead in thought.
“Still, it remains a mystery why some people, including me, return from a comatose condition and do tell about such an experience and others don't.”
“Shouldn't there be any mystery? We can't just reduce everything to moulds and numbers? There's definitely more than just the objective, measurable reality, I'm definitely convinced of that after such an experience. Did you also experience this immense peace and love in your NDE?”
“I became a completely different person, ma’am. My insight for what's important in life has changed and with it, my attitude towards life. I pay more attention to nature, I pay more attention when listening to the stories of others. I now enjoy music and the garden that my wife built. I look at life with a completely different view now. I often wish she had experienced this turnaround in me.”
“You're bringing her flowers today. You do that out of love and that's all that matters in life.”
He got up, got his flowers, offered me his hand and said:
“This was such a special meeting and at a place that means so much to me, thank you so much.”
He watched him go and thought: he doesn't even know how much this place meant to me. I stayed a little longer.
Did I hear the fence of the other cemetery open? I got up and went to the retaining wall one last time, which had leaned my hands on so many times as a child to look at the horse.