26 April 2011

Graveyards I have known and loved, and why I never want to be buried in one

(This is a rough draft of an essay I was working on a few weeks ago. I'm going to go ahead and put it out here since I seem to be at a standstill...)

My childhood home was next to a cemetery. A small and forlorn one, to be sure, without even a sign out front until later years. My sister and I went there often- we lived on a busy road with few neighbors, so it was something to do. A lot of time was spent there, reading the stones. I was fascinated by how much older and  crumbly the stones became as I moved further to the back. I can still remember how it felt when I discovered three child's stones all in a row, all seemingly siblings who had each died at a year of age. I froze in my tracks, feeling part of a ghost story. We'd fly kites there sometimes. Not a good choice considering how we had to look both upward at the kite and downward so as to not trip on the stones. But we were kids and we made do with what we had available.

Cemeteries continued to pepper my life, as I suppose they do everyone's in some way. At one point my father got interested in geneaology and we spent most of a summer of traipsing all over Nelson County haunting the burial areas of little white country churches ion search of Fitzgeralds and their kin. Sometimes it was pretty boring. I grew tired of feeling carsick from the mountain roads, of trudging up a hill in the middle of the woods to look for 3 elusive tombstones that were rumored to be there. But in the midst of that experience I cultivated a love for the beauty there. A statue of an angel with crumbling features. The ever-popular lamb sitting docile atop the small stone of a baby.

Around the time that I got my first car, a champagne beige Honda hatchback which I later totaled- I was also taking a photography class in high school. I loved this new freedom to go where I pleased. I spent many sunny afternoons taking photos in cemeteries. It was at this time that I discovered the historic Old City Cemetery in downtown Lynchburg. I would pull over somewhere if I happened upon one that looked worthy. My old favorites, though, were the so-called "torch cemetery" and also Spring Hill, near the city stadium. My grandmother used to like telling me how she already had her plot bought and paid for at Spring Hill. She won't be buried beside her late husband, however. he chose to donate his body to science. No tandem stone for those two. But ultimately, does it matter?

I had my first date with the man I was to marry in a cemetery. We parked outside the gate, slid through to the other side and took a long walk and talked. There are few places quieter or more private, after all. We talked for a long, long time that evening and we returned to that spot many times to wander or to hash something out. One night we even took the camera and tripod to try to get some long-exposure shots.

It's an odd thing, really. How much I love cemeteries and yet cannot bear the thought of being placed in one for eternity. For one thing, the old stones and statues I love are relics of the past. I'd never have a grave that cool. Everything's all flat and easy to landscape now. Boring. But that isn't all of it. It's the vast amount of space these morgues take up. It just seems such a waste to me. I'd rather be burned to dust and scattered around somewhere. It rings out on a more practical note for me.

When our family lost a loved one a few years ago, I learned something valuable: that the ritual of the funeral is for the benefit of those left behind. Ultimately, I have wishes surrounding my own death but I want my family and friends to do what they need to do to process it all. Jonathan was gone and his body a lifeless hub. But for us, the placing of the chess book and the Bible in his coffin felt sacred. After all, this hub was all we had left of the one we'd known.As humans in a grief state, we tend to cling to this soulless body and address it as if it were still alive. The body certainly deserves respect, and in some groups the ritual of burial is a necessary part of that reverence.

It occurred to me one day that eventually, everyone who knew and loved these people will die off themselves, and then what? Acres and acres of forgotten people, taking up space. This came to light for me when I was sitting for an elderly woman for a few weeks. She was telling me how her first child was born dead. How her husband sat on the side of the bed and cried for the little lost child. She knew what cemetery it was in, and I jotted the child's name down in the margin of my notebook, intending to go and find her some lazy day. But I never did- and chances are, no one else ever will either. That baby lived in her parents' hearts and that heart is now in a grave of it's own.

I have a friend who became a widow at a young age. I asked her recently why she chose to have her husband cremated and if she regretted not having a grave to go to. Here is part of her response:

I have never even thought about going to a gravesite. I have been very happy with our decision to scatter the ashes. His ashes are scattered in the mountains and at the beach. So I figure if the boys and I need a place to go and remember him.... we can take a hike or a vacation :-)
I read a blog that is written by a gal whose fiance died. It's been a year... and she goes to "see G--" EVERYDAY at the cemetery. I keep wondering at what point she will realize that he's NOT THERE. I know that some people are really attached to gravesites... but I am just not one of them. I think tending to a grave would just be another chore to feel guilty about.
She also tells me that she and her husband discussed cremation because it's cheaper and they have certain feelings about the funeral industry and the notion that they prey on grieving people. But for me, it just seems wasteful. I wonder if perhaps we have just enough beautiful, old cemeteries to enjoy at this point.

Which brings me to a Harper's article from a few years ago that I just stumbled over recently, about the corpse industry and how body parts are hustled and "sold" for all kinds of purposes. Stay tuned.


Jo said...

That was lovely and thought-provoking! I can't wait to hear the next installment about the body parts.

I always thought I'd like to be buried in a plain pine box or a shroud, unembalmed, unmarked, somewhere remote and beautiful, and let to decompose naturally. I think that's a thing you can arrange now, although there are lots of laws about it.

BarelyKnitTogether said...

I'm so glad you finally shared this. I've been waiting expectantly! Fascinating that you and J had your first date in a cemetery. Did you know that Chad, Philip, and a few others and I would go to the "torch cemetery" and hang out all night? It was part of our ritual, which might speak to what kind of people we were. Perhaps. Maybe, when we thought we were hearing phantoms, it was only you.

Misplaced Musings said...

The torch is where we had the date! And interesting that Phillip is buried there. did his family know or was that a coincidence?

Jo, a midwife here was doing workshops for awhile about burying your own dead...she taught the laws, the traditional methods of preparing the body, everything. I so wanted to go! but never did.

Massie Straton said...

I absolutely loved reading this post Melissa, you transported me away from my computer screen at work to another place.