Monday, April 26, 2010


I can remember idly wondering - in one of those short-lived, under-appreciated, pre-adolescent summer spells where "boredom" is an imagined risk, and "idle" is an actual state - if my affection for cemeteries meant I was morbid or otherwise "not right."

I would ride my bike from my grandparent's farm "all the way" to the cemetery up the road. The bike had been my mother's, or possibly belonged to a cousin who had long since moved on to other things. Grandpa and I painted it. With Rustoleum from the hardware store. A sort of semi-matte orange that showed every paintbrush stroke. He bought me a red banana seat with the deeply imbedded sparkles that seem an inverse 3-D - a sparkly depth that goes on for iridescent ever in the bright sun of Connecticut July.

I pedalled uphill to that place and was alone in a way that felt specifically mine. Not the alone that comes from sibling abandonment, or friends being thousands of miles away (our home was South, our summers were North), but the first glimpses of Alone that you choose. I would pull tangles of weeds away from some headstones.

I would wander those stones, read them. I would parse through the dates, do the math. Find some from 18-so-and-so and some, if memory serves, from 17-something. I would imagine their stories, their long-ago-lives of simplicity and unimaginable complexity - some cut short by war, commemorated by tiny flags.

When Grandpa died, I couldn't understand why his graveyard was one we had to drive to. Why it was so golfcourse-like. Grandma would bring flowers from her gardens, tend others she had planted. She would say a rosary. The honoring felt different with someone I knew - with the gravity (pun, perhaps,unavoidable) of the situation infusing those occasions with an awkwardness. I wanted to visit alone, and I wanted not to intrude.

Gavin, who has an abstract comfort with death that both a love of history and his own veteran status afford, shares my affection for cemeteries. On vacations, we visit them. He reads the headstones, looking for the oldest, the best epitaphs, the largest families buried together, the most interesting names.

We have visited his grandfather's, who had fought the good fight, finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7). We have spent hours in cemeteries in Scotland, in France. We have driven out of our way in wanderings to chase them down. We hiked barely marked paths in a National Park on spring break to find ancestral graves (and found them). And, alone in Vancouver, I caught the first glimpse of majestic mountains by veering off-course in my walk from work to my motel - through a beautiful cemetery.

Here, we live near one of Atlanta's grander 'memorial gardens.' I run there. 100+ acres, with an unparalleled view of the city. Its highest point marked by a marble couple, forever looking ever higher, with the city scape directly beneath them.

In spring, the real plants,those that threaten to overtake were it not for the constant attention of caretakers, flower. All senses are engaged as I pant along on my gimp foot, assaulted by pollen, confronted all sides by Death, and wisteria, roses, and later in the season, magnolias, all on the edges, trying to break in. And in the middle, acres of rolling manicured lawns. And the dusty, sad cheer of row upon row of fake flowers.

Aside from the occasional long-ago-planted oak, the lawns are free of actual plant life. Plastic flowers weather in vases cleverly constructed as part of the headstones. And yet, everywhere there are spigots - presumably to help you in your grave-tending.

I have had little contact with death, and have just enough religion / spirituality to say with some conviction that I do believe it hardest on the living. The serenity and beauty of the graveyards is there for them. I don't know for whom the plastic flowers fade.

I have been to funerals and their wakes - a scant eight over my lifetime, if I am counting correctly. I have seen passion and poetry, reverence and reverie, even dancing, toasts, and silver goblets. I have also witnessed air deader than the person being so respected. And at all, the coffins seemed universally ill-suited to the task. (Please. No embalming for me. If anyone's asking.)

My sister the brilliant poet wrote, while in high school, a poem about mortality to honor my (still living, at the time) grandmother that started "..'please don't put plastic flowers on my grave, ' she said. And I, unthinkingly, agreed."

Thinkingly, decades later, I agree as well - fervently, rabidly. But from wherever I am, I bet I would love a spot in a graveyard - a bench, maybe, to honor my life. Some wisteria - uncontrolled and unruly - and a few words well-chosen and carved on something more permanent than I, in a nice font.

1 comment:

  1. I seek out cemeteries, too, and look for the oldest, most unusual, ones that seem to really reflect the individual. And I'm amazed by local styles and dominant families. In Key West, I saw the epitaph, "I told you I was sick," and noticed at least one wife buried far away from the husband who opted to be in the special section for his Masonic lodge (or perhaps it was here choice?). Also saw that a very heavy percentage of the Jewish women were described as "a woman of valor."