Because I didn’t think I was my best shiny-souled self when last I blogged, I sat down yesterday at the library to noodle something “lite” but good for you. Anyhow, I tried.
No sooner had I taken care of a few bits of online housekeeping than I flew into rebellion against all acts of duty. I couldn’t blog. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t bear the noise of the library. I couldn’t face the prospect of going home and cleaning my car (which I had to do because I was scheduled to drive a friend to the hospital and I’m sure she didn’t want to arrive wearing dog-fur britches).
I had to get out. Had to be free. Had to spend money.
I took care of the spending money part at the thrift store (four shirts for $5), collected Ava, bought a latte, and headed out for unknown territory.
The most unknown territory of all — death.
Which sounds more dramatic than it was.
Our area has several tiny disused graveyards tucked away amid the trees, plus one surprisingly large, and very beautiful cemetery whose burials run from the late 19th century to day-before-yesterday. I’m sure to you New England types, or even more you few Europeans reading here that’s no time at all for a burial ground, but it’s long enough to have collected a surprising number of stories.
Someone more skilled than I could write a west coast Spoon River Anthology about the stories buried with the people here. To begin, if the writer wasn’t already an area oldtimer, she’d probably want to talk with Dave. The place is his responsiblity. He mows the lawn, digs the graves, rousts snoozing druggies, keeps the registry, pours cement slabs to bear the monuments, and can tell visitors off the top of his head the location of every one of the dead, if they simply give a name.
And he knows the stories.
There’s the family whose four members all died within five years — three suicides and a (probably accidental) drug overdose. They’re buried in the same section of the cemetery thanks to the dates of their death, but they’re not clustered together, nor do they have similar “themed” monuments. Seems fitting. They didn’t like each other much, so why pretend to get cozy under tombstones? The violent suicide of the youngest and least-loved child set off the chain of events. The favored child, with nobody left, and consumed with guilt, went last.
And there’s the woman murdered late at night in a c-store, her killer never caught due to small-town police ineptitude, but his identity guessed by everyone. And the wife who was buried next to her husband — who died 50 years before she did. The two high school girls, lifelong best friends, who sneaked out of school one fine spring day and ended up under a logging truck. The friends also ended up buried under matching, connected headstones despite being of different families, cultures, religions, national origins, and races.
So many more. There are surprisingly many stories for such a lightly populated area.
Somewhere out there is an acquaintance of mine from dog rescue days. Young, attractive, a daughter of fortune married into the richest family in town. Dead of a rare, fast-moving cancer. She has a border collie etched on her memorial.
One very young woman, whose self-caused death might have been a Darwin Award candidate if such had existed then, still has a guestbook in a jar and is plied with heart-and-flower mementos and “We love you” banners a quarter of a century after she had to be craned out of the bottom of a ravine. She was a popular girl, athletic, and pretty. Her stone holds an embedded photo that preserves her forever cheerleader-young.
There are a lot of young adults under ground in this cemetery. I think of A.E. Houseman’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden” from A Shropshire Lad.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
I like to wander around these graves, though the slopes are steep and the ground uneven. Ava loves it too, for the freedom to roam without boundaries. It really is the most beautiful place, better than most of our parks.
One of my favorite graves, though I don’t know its story, is a recent one of a 20-year-old guy. In an oval, there’s a photo of him in camo with rifle in the woods. Friends have left rifle cartridges and shotgun shells, along with a bottle of Hoppes #9, at the base of his tombstone.
Dave the groundskeeper (sexton? what’s the correct word for his job these days?) respectfully leaves items like that, though I’m sure he must toss more than his share of faded plastic flowers, beer cans, and even occasional hypodermic needles. He told me once that friends sometimes place (as he put it in his old-fashioned way) doobies or baggies on graves. I wonder if he leaves those, as respectfully as he leaves the shotgun shells or the cute, colorful charms left on the Darwin cheerleader’s grave?
The real heartbreakers of course are the graves in the special children’s section — covered with toys that no visitor ever steals, but no little kid will ever enjoy again.
Or the graves of people who died 30 or 40 years ago, but are still identified only by temporary metal plaques on stakes (the ones with movable letters that serve as utilitarian records, not as memorials). You wonder whether nobody was around to care when they died — or whether there were people around, but none cared enough to spring for a gravemarker. Take that, you old vicious bastard of a father. I can finally reveal what I think of you, manipulative mom. So there, ungrateful son.
Aside from the stories you can know, there are so many messages only the dead and the people who lived with them, for good or ill, could understand or convey.
It’s funny. The experience of walking around in a graveyard feels profound, very moving even when you have no connection to the dead below your feet. Surreal, too. There you are, enjoying a sunny day, relaxing, contemplating while every manner of human tragedy and drama lies below you. And maybe even a few great love stories, no longer readable.
You peer at century-old marble stones of people who surely wanted to be remembered. But the marble is too weathered and moss-grown now to reveal their names. You wonder which of the wide, coupled stones with wedding rings and marriage dates really denotes a happy, devoted union and which are just the polite cover-up for a decades-long slog of abuse and resentment.
You contemplate mortality. And the afterlife. And whether dogs have souls and why they can’t they be buried with their people and share their markers. Surely, plenty of the people underfoot secretly — or openly — would have rather shared eternity with their dogs or cats than their parents or siblings.
Then you see the grave of that old woman, buried next to her 20-something husband-that-was. Never remarried, never forgot him. And there you feel the love.
Taking a walk in a graveyard is a genuinely profound, complex, philosophical, and often exceedingly weird human experience.
But try and write anything more than shallow observations like these, and somehow all that depth of feeling spews out as cliches.
What can you say about death, except that every one of us is (cliche alert) creeping, we hope not zooming, galloping — or (worse) plummeting like Wile E. Coyote with an Acme parachute — closer to it every day? Then, after all the chaos, agony, and hopeful lights of life comes this ultimate, dreaded thing — which maybe by the time it arrives you actually welcome. Or you’re anticlimactically too zoned out or Alzheimered to notice. Or maybe at the end you fear death more than ever and you gasp and rattle away, terrified of suffering as you still breathe — or dreading the maw of Hell once you stop.
Then … you end up in the most peaceful place in the universe, a graveyard.
And some woman’s dog takes a poop on you.