Green Fields

[Author's Note: This piece is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, who passed away last week. The last time I saw her, several months before she died, she told me that she was not a "god-fearing" person. Freethought evidently runs deeper in my family than I had guessed, and in this small way, as in others, I'm glad I can carry on after her.]

For those who are grieving, for those who mourn, and for all those who are burdened with the weary weight of sorrow, I have a prescription.

Find a quiet, peaceful place, a green field of grass where great trees grow and gift the world with their shade. Let it be just before sunset, at that golden hour when the heat of the afternoon is past, when the sky is blue as a pearl and the setting sun hues the world in its last, richest and most transitory light.

Sit against the trunk of an old and massive tree, one that’s lived through summers and winters untold. Lean on its rough, moss-clad bark and feel the slow, patient pulse of the life in the green heart of the wood. Try to clear your mind of thought, and listen.

Put your hand on the earth, tangle your fingers in the soft blades of the grass, and hear it whisper to you. It knows about death, about loss; it dies each winter, when the snows and frosts come. But that isn’t the end of its story: it’s born anew in the spring, remade each year, playing its part in the mystery of eternal renewal that our ancestors knew intimately.

Hear the wind’s call as it passes by, rustling across the grass. It teaches that nothing is permanent, everything is transitory. Life is a pattern of change, of ebb and flow, loss and renewal, death and rebirth. Like the wind, all things arise in their time, sweep by us, and pass on.

Hear a trill of birdsong float down from the green and golden branches of the trees. Their singing should remind us that life itself is music, a great unbroken symphony, and if they do not scorn to play their part, neither should we. In truth, we are not the singers: we are the notes of the melody. There, a birth, a joyous rising chord; here, a death, a plaintive falling note. Each life is a brief theme in the choral harmony, and like every musical theme, it has a beginning and an ending; but if played well, it may inspire exuberant new bursts of music that transcend the original.

Look up to the high boughs of the trees. Look up, because most of us don’t do it often enough, and see their branches rise like pillars through endless halls of green. Look past them to the sky beyond, where the stars glimmer unseen beyond the blue haze of our atmosphere, and reflect on how small we all are in the ultimate accounting, how low we stand in the grandest scheme of things. In a way, our insignificance is strangely comforting. It reminds us to look beyond our day-to-day concerns, beyond the small glories and the small sorrows, and to keep in mind the whole vast cosmos that dwells beyond the private walls of grief. And when our gaze returns to earth, when we descend from that lofty plane back to our own small circle of warmth and light, let it be with a renewed sense of our own purpose in living.

No matter what happens after death – whether we are reborn, go on to another place, or simply cease – there is beauty in this life, as much as we could ask for. There are green fields and peaceful waters, the hush of the dawn and fireflies in the summer evenings, the glory of sunset and the silent, holy falling of snow on dark clear nights. If there is any complaint we might justly make, it is not that this life lacks meaning, but rather that it has so many meaningful things to do and to explore that one lifetime is not enough for all of them.

It’s true, as an old book says, that we live in the valley of the shadow of death. But that should not be a source of fear to us. That proximity is the very thing that makes our lives meaningful, that makes them sacred. The knowledge of our own mortality should imbue each day with an ocean of significance; it should be the signpost on the trail, pointing the way for us to live life to the fullest, with the most awareness, and the deepest joy.

Someday we, too, will slumber under green fields. Our story will be told, our journey will be complete. But in the interim, in this time and this place, we are alive and free. We have a long way left to walk before the evening falls, before the time comes to lay our burdens down. Let us choose our path wisely, and find worthy companions to accompany us along the way. And one more, personal word of advice: take the time to explore the side trails and detours. You’ll find secrets and wonders that will make the effort worthwhile.

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
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New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ace

    Thankyou. The journey through that text was beautiful.

  • Bunk

    I’m sorry about your grandmother.

    Your post was brilliant. I actually wouldn’t mind having that read at my memorial service (in a couple hundred years).

  • Maynard

    Deepest sympathies for your loss Ebon. You are a part of your grandmother and carry on her life through your genes and your actions. We are made from those that struggled to get us here and by living our life to the fullest, we honor theirs.

  • Steven

    A fitting tribute to someone who clearly meant a lot to you. I miss my grandmother too, the world is a darker place without her.

  • Wayne Essel

    Sorry for your loss, Ebonmuse. Very nice post.

  • AC

    Condolences for your loss, Ebonmuse. And thanks for a truly beautiful post.

  • fancyplants

    Sorry to hear about your grandmother. This is a beautiful post with which to commemorate her life.

    Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I’m sorry to hear about your loss. But a moving post. I have a similar prescription. At funerals, I just take a nice, deep breath outdoors.

    Take it in. Let it out. Take it in. Let it out.

    It’s statistically certain that you just breathed in molecules that were breathed in by your loved one on the day she was born. On the days she gave birth, got married, visited somewhere you’ve never been, participated in something momentous or important. In time, the molecules in her body will be part of the soil and eventually return to the life cycle, but even now some of them are out here. Physically, those you know can not fail to live on. And as long as they are remembered, they live on in memory, and in the actions of those who come after.

    It’s not as visceral as “immortality” or a “soul,” but it is at least real.

  • Jerryd

    What beautiful prose this is. I’m sorry your grandmother didn’t get to read this lovely tribute to her, I know she would have been proud. Thanks.

  • Greta Christina

    Thanks so much for this post. And please accept my condolences. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Sarah

    This is really wonderful. Thank you for posting.

  • Josie

    That was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. Thank you.
    I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    My sympathy to you and your family at your bereavement.

    It takes courage to expose your innermost feelings so publicly, and talent to do so with such eloquence.

  • Adele

    I wish I had had the talent to write something like this when my grandmother died.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Teleprompter

    You have my sympathy and my condolences. I am sure that she was honored to have a grandson like you.

  • Lux Aeterna

    I first started thinking about life and death (and what comes after) after watching the Lion King:

    The Circle of Life goes on.

  • Danikajaye

    I’m sorry for your loss. A wonderful example of how life still has meaning and beauty without God. Powerful imagery.

  • Timothy Mills

    Powerful words. Thankyou for sharing them. You have my sympathy for your grandmother’s death.

  • TommyP

    Beautifully written. Your Grandmother would be proud, I think. I was very inspired.

  • Rick

    To all who liked the feelings you had you should read “Stardust” in Ebon Musings

  • jim coufal

    Thanks for sharing this tribute to your grandmother. I never knew, met, or even saw my grandparents, but we all have someone whose passing moves us in a powerful way. And your words remind me how important it is, IMHO, to let those we love know how we feel before they die, whether it in a simple straightforward delivery, or the setting up of a memorial of any expression.


    You can’t go home again
    no matter what you do,
    home will have changed
    and so also will you.

    You should go home again
    no matter what you do,
    home is the place
    where love is loyal, and fierce, and true.

    You will go home again
    no matter what you do,
    the deep abyss of eternity
    unfailingly awaits for you.

  • Ebonmuse

    Thank you, friends, for your kind words. What I find most profoundly moving and strange is the thought that at the genetic level, one-fourth of me is her. That knowledge gives me reason to believe, in a non-supernatural sense, that the deceased live on in us.

  • Alex Weaver

    Having lost a beloved family member of a different sort within the last several weeks, this was both moving and welcome. A printed copy of this is, I think, going in her urn alongside her favorite squeaky ball and her collar, once I’m ready to scatter/bury her ashes (and decide which is more suitable). I’d actually be interested in having this read at my funeral, someday…

  • no2religion

    My heartfelt condolences. Vjack just went through this and there was such wonderful outpouring from his readers. When I read what was posted there and here it shows me just how compassionate we atheists are.

  • Steve Bowen

    Adam Hi!
    I was going to send this as a personal email, but on reflection I feel that I am among friends on Daylight Atheism so decided to comment here instead. As you know my father passed away on the 4th July. I have spent the last few days away from work, caring for my mother, sorting out her affairs and arranging the funeral. My mother had an interesting concern; neither her or my father had been to church (other than weddings, christenings and funerals)for years and was dreading meeting the local vicar to talk about the service. I suggested that as neither of them were practicing christians why not opt for a humanist ceremony instead, to which she agreed. Actually I was surprised as although not particularly religious my mother is very traditional in her outlook and would normally be very aware of the feelings of other relatives in this regard. Anyway, today we met with a humanist celebrant and she has helped us to construct a simple but moving ceremony which I am sure will honour my father and satisfy any in the congregation that are of a religious disposition. I am writing my fathers eulogy and have incorporated Scotlyns excellent take on the ever changing “I” as I narrate his life story.
    However she (the celebrant) threw me a little when she sugested that either her or I should read an appropriate poem at the end of the ceremony as a closing thought. For some reason I don’t find verse as inspiring as I should and didn’t really have clue what to suggest. Then I remembered Green Fields. I read this piece to her and it blew her and my mother away. So with your permission this will be the end note to my father’s passing and the final thoughts the congregation will leave with. Thanks for your inspiration, Ebonmusings and Daylight Atheism which have all helped me through this difficult time.

  • Ebonmuse

    Thank you, Steve; you do me great honor. Of course, you have my permission to use or adapt this piece in any way you see fit. You have my sympathy for your loss.