I have lived my entire adult life in the northeastern part of the United States, where each of the four seasons of the solar year comes with its own special joys.
Winter brings snow, ice, and wind—more of the former and less of the latter two is the wish for a good skiing season here in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Spring comes more slowly here than in the foothills of western Pennsylvania where I once lived; there, flowers came in quick succession, and sometimes all at once. But here, the early flowers linger for weeks as the later flowers awaken slowly from their winter slumber. Summer can be tropical at times even hot up here, though we often have many days of low humidity and pleasant temperatures with nearly cloudless blue skies.
But the crowning glory of seasons in the northeast, particularly in New England, is the rainbow of dying leaves in autumn.
Technicolor has nothing on biology in the fall. The leaves we see in spring and summer are green because of chlorophyl, that miracle of evolution by which plants convert sunlight, oxygen, and water into energy. Trees and other plants take advantage of the long hours of sunlight and warmer temperatures to grow strong and healthy.
With autumn’s decreasing sunlight and cooler temperatures, deciduous plants prepare for winter by shutting down unnecessary processes—such as those energy-producing leaves. Chlorophyl recedes from leaves as the “engines” shut down, allowing the colors from other chemicals to show their yellow and orange hues. Some leaves that are vulnerable to even the weakening autumn sun need ultraviolet protection produced by anthocyanin, which yields shades of red including scarlet, burgundy, and maroon.
With weak winter sun and frigid temperatures coming, all circulation into the leaves stops; the joints at the bases of the leaves where they meet the branches seal off; and the leaves wither, turn brown, and finally fall off the plants. In the snowy forests of the White Mountains, barren gray sentinels stand among their evergreen siblings, which are better equipped to bear the weight of ice and snow even with their needles intact.
Death in living color
I’m given to wonder if the beauty of the dying leaves can teach us humans something beautiful about death. Autumn allows us to watch the whole process of death, to celebrate the colors and acknowledge the passing of summer with sadness or greet the coming of winter with joy.
Death is often hidden away by the professionals to whom we have entrusted the care of our dying and dead loved ones. It’s a rare family who is able to care for a loved one at home, even with the increasing availability of hospice care.
The Muslim tradition to wash and dress the body of a loved one in preparation for funeral services was once much more common across faith expressions, but in most cases now, funeral directors assure that bodies are prepared in accordance with state and local laws for burial or other final arrangements. The Jewish custom of sitting Shiva for seven days—and the gentleness with which grieving people are treated in and by the community for a full year—acknowledges the messiness of grief and loss more compassionately and realistically than the 4-5 days between death and most funerals I’m asked to lead as a Christian clergywoman, whether the deceased was religious or not.
I’ve noticed recently that many families are even foregoing funerals or memorial services entirely, which may be a logical outcome of professionalizing (and in some ways depersonalizing) the experience of death. Even so, I worry from some experience that this lack of acknowledgement could lead to even more issues with complex grief, depression, and ruptured family relationships than already occur, if the trend continues.
Death is an inevitable part of life. Not every leaf makes it to its autumn end; storms, insects, and disease can cause leaves to die and fall off before their job as energy producers is complete. Animals don’t always live their full lifespan. The most spiritually challenging experiences in my ministry are the deaths of people in the spring or summer of their lives, before they have lived the “threescore and ten” or more that represents a full life.
The autumns of our lives
I’m watching my parents as they negotiate the autumns of their lives now, keenly aware that “summertime” events that might have taken them from us then have led to conditions that will complicate the rest of their lives. Survival is not always pretty, especially when the treatment that leads to survival could itself be deadly in slightly larger doses! The autumn of my parents’ lives is not as easy as we had hoped, but I am grateful to have them for this fall season and will do all I can to help them live into their winter seasons with at least a little “foliage” that is evergreen. I am, however, preparing myself to acknowledge that even the needles on pine trees die and fall away in a natural cycle because death is, indeed, an inevitable part of life.
I sometimes wish our religious ancestors had been able to understand quantum mechanics with clarity similar to our modern thoughts. Our Christian theology of death and dying (and thus the culture shaped by it) would be healthier if we were gifted with the idea of entropy from an early stage of religious thought. Instead, for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, death is caught up in sinfulness, and we ameliorate our fear of death with belief in eternal life and “the resurrection of the body” (the Apostle’s Creed).
I personally believe in a God of miracles, so even though science tells me that both of these things are highly improbable, I am comfortable with the hope. Even so, part of my responsibility as clergy is to help people deal with the very real, very physical death of loved ones in practical ways that both transcend and support whatever beliefs they may have about the afterlife.
Would that science could provide me with a plant for my office that could produce the effects of autumn on its leaves whenever I need to sit with a family. Those rainbow hues, though they are harbingers of death, are also reminders that life goes on.
And that is the best reason of all to be in awe of dying leaves.
The Reverend Doctor Ruth E. Shaver is the Interim Senior Pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, United Church of Christ, in North Conway, New Hampshire. She completed her Doctor of Ministry at Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2016 with a dissertation project titled, “I Wonder: Scientific Exploration and Experimentation as a Practice of Christian Faith,” and is a former Sinai and Synapses Fellow.