I’ve always loved cemeteries, especially when I became old enough to appreciate the historical aspects of them. Infatuated with the past and the stories it has to tell, I happily wandered through graveyards, whether I knew anyone buried there or not, reading stones and wondering about circumstances and imagining the deceased’s journey from the East Coast or Ireland or Germany in the 19th century; or the soldier’s experiences in war and his life in the years that followed, however many years those were.
I think the experience of two family members, my father being one of them, dying in the past six months has had an impact on the way I think about cemeteries. It’s brought me face-to-face with the realization that people I knew and love are in boxes deep under the ground beneath my feet.
This came home to me with special force the past couple of days after I accidentally set the cemetery picture of my mother and niece and nephew that appeared in this post as wallpaper on my computer screen. With that big image before me, it’s as if I’ve suddenly developed x-ray vision and can see beneath the grass to all those many, many coffins under the long expanse of headstone-studded lawn. I stare at that photo and imagine Grandpa lying there in his casket as I recall him from the visitation over 31 years ago: horribly flat and stiff, dressed in his colors, marks on his nose where he scraped the racetrack when he fell (or where the horse caught him with a metal shoe or the sulky tire ran over his face – just this year I heard new details that somehow had never been related before).
And under every one of those numerous headstones in that picture lies a fixed corpse like his. It’s a different perspective from strolling through an anonymous cemetery, especially a very old one, where the dead and their coffins may have gone back to dirt and the stones are more like memorials to the idea of that person, not a marker flagging the location of a physical body. It’s not that I haven’t always known all this. I have. In fact, that’s probably why, going back to adolescence, I’ve wanted to be cremated when I die. Many of the adults in my close circle of family feel the same way. I think I’ve come to a point where sprinkling ashes, or even burying them in a container, seems more civilized and more spiritual than the ghastly notion of preserving flesh and storing it underground indefinitely.