I love cemeteries. I always have. In the past, when my friends have questioned my interest, I’ve struggled to articulate exactly why.
However, years of observing our culture has helped me to understand my fascination. The world is disorienting, bewildering, heavy, small. Cemeteries are not. They are a respite from worldly confusion and a comforting acknowledgement of natural order. We’re born and we die. We return to that from which we were made, to Him who made us. Nothing can arrest the cycle.
The headstones also reveal a distilled list of things important to those who have passed: family, country. They reveal what roles imbued their lives with purpose: beloved father, mother, sister, brother. Husband, wife. Soldier, friend. In a world of unnecessary superlatives, these were all that mattered. In this way, the dead speak.
Outside the cemetery walls, young people balk at these titles. Culture is permeated with a simultaneous disdain for these designations and the hypocritical desire to “define ourselves” by anything else—our sexual orientation, relationships, careers, education. We receive societal approval from parents and on social media for shirking roles driven by duty or morality.
Sexual freedom without consequence. The ability to define yourself on your own terms. More educational opportunities than ever. Fewer behavioral problems, like drinking, school fights, sex, and smoking. Theoretically, young people should be the happiest they’ve ever been.
Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. A slew of damning articles from the New York Times and the Atlantic document the cultural trend noticeable to even a passing observer: American adolescence is changing for the worse. Teens are deeply depressed.
In fact, according to the CDC, we’re witnessing the “highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.” From 2009 to 2021, American high schoolers who report feeling “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose steeply from 26 percent to 44 percent. In 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds.
How could this be? Even our atmosphere of “unconditional acceptance,” which is lauded by the mainstream media, isn’t making kids any happier, specifically those who identify as LGBTQ. Nearly half of LGBTQ teens reported contemplating suicide during the pandemic, compared with 14 percent of heterosexual young people their age.
These papers cite the obvious reasons for the crisis, including increased social media use, less sleep and exercise, the 24/7 news cycle, the earlier onset of puberty, loneliness, modern parenting strategies, and the pandemic. While these factors play a role, their lists make a glaring omission.
The dead have the answer. Their gravestones are littered with crosses and stars of David and inscriptions like “Child of God,” religious signifiers that point toward a different kind of identity.
As teen depression has gone up, church and synagogue attendance has gone down. According to a Gallup poll released in March 2020, only 47 percent of U.S. citizens belonged to a house of worship, down more than 20 points from the turn of the century. The year 2020 was the first time that number dipped below 50 percent since Gallup began asking the question 80 years prior.
Additionally, Gallup found membership correlates with age, with the oldest Americans much more likely to be members than young adults. This drop-off was particularly pronounced for millennials and Gen Z, who are 30 percent less likely to attend religious services than Americans born before 1946. For baby boomers and Gen X, these numbers are only 8 and 16 points, respectively.
What does it cost us when we lose our religion? Our health, according to researchers at the Mayo clinic. “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and quality of life (even during terminal illness), and less anxiety, depression and suicide,” the researchers conclude.
Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University concludes that, though religion focuses on God or an external locus of control, religious people have a strong sense of internal control. “As people pray, and ask God for guidance,” he said in an interview with Forbes, “they feel a sense of control over their own situation, helping them cope with depression and anxiety.”
Religion also plays a major role in the formation of community and social cohesion. Those epitaphs—mother and sister, brother and son, father and friend—are based on the traditional Judeo-Christian family structure, and central to how one perceives the world and his role in it. These roles, based on duty to others, have proven over centuries to be more enduring than any we might choose for ourselves. They make us more altruistic, empathetic, and socially responsible. These communities, and their boundaries, promote liberty and sustain civil society.
In the absence of the God of the Bible and these religious institutions built around him, more malicious, fallible things—relationships, jobs, presidential candidates—will rise to take his place. There’s no such thing as true autonomy. Something will be the god of our hearts.
And then, there’s something else—something in the feeling of standing in front of a headstone with a cross or star of David chiseled above the name and role. There is a miraculous side-effect of faith, inexplicable to those without it and paramount to those who have it. When communities and relationships fail us, and when we fail ourselves, we have hope in spite of circumstance.
For those willing to listen, the dead whisper of something that grows beyond this life. Death is just a gardener.
Grace Bydalek is a writer, performer, and administrator based on the Upper West Side of New York City. She’s a graduate of the Gotham Fellowship and winner of the Cultural Renewal Grant, with which she co-founded It Is Good: A Festival of Arts + Faith.