Monday, October 31, 2011
Rest In Peace
I'm not a Halloween hater. I'm not a lover either. Yet there is one aspect of this fear fest that I truly disdain. (And it has nothing to do with Satan.)
Across from the library I frequent there's an elaborate Halloween spread. There are at least thirty goulish headstones staked into the ground, cobwebs clinging to tree branches and a large skeleton draped across the arched entrance to the "Lake St. Cemetery."
It's exquisitely dramatic, but I find it disturbing. Not because I am frightened of ghouls and ghosts, but because the entire display portrays one of my beloved spaces as a frightful fantasy.
I love cemeteries. They are great fodder for the imagination. Each time I see a cemetery I think There's a story there. Not the stories of goblins and zombies, but of real men and women, our fellow human beings.
In first grade our class took a field trip to a little cemetery across from a shopping center. We were on a nature walk of some sort and for a reason I cannot recall we ventured inside the chain link. Our class of knee high souls was remarkably quiet as we drifted across the sparse patches of grass. There was nothing inherently romantic about it. What struck me was the ordinariness of it, it's place so near the busy road where hundreds of people drive past each day. Death, this mammoth mystery that eludes mankind, is always among us.
Somewhere toward the center of this plain graveyard was a grouping of three palm sized markers. They only bore one date. Eight numbers chiseled into each one. A set of triplets without names. To their left a headstone of a woman whose life ceased on the same day. A mother who died while trying to give life.
There is a story there.
My six year old self knew this even then. It longed for the story buried in the ground. The one no one could tell me. There was a distance of decades between us, but only feet of dirt. I felt close to them, close to them as human beings.
I also knew that one day the body I lived in now would be dirt under the feet of a stranger, a stranger who knew nothing of my six year old heartaches, the friends I loved or the color of my hair. My story would be there, buried under a headstone, carried away by time.
In that knowledge I could have felt fear, but all I felt was a calm sorrow, a steady, inevitable weight of knowledge. The scale of life exploded as my perspective shifted. I felt incredibly smaller and larger simultaneously.
I always notice them now, the graveyards. When I drive a stretch of highway they leap out at me, especially the fading ones with sagging alters of stacked stone. I reach out for the stories.
Cemeteries are remarkable places where we are somehow near to people far away. People who have in one way or another impacted our lives by preceding us.
"For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts: and that things are not so ill as for you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in univisited tombs." George Eliot, Middlemarch
I like to visit the hidden tombs to reflect, to search for that same feeling of smallness and largeness I had on that day in first grade.
We desecrate sacred places of shared humanity when we characterize them as haunts, turning forgotten stories of sorrow, love, timidity and courage into frightening amusements for the living.
The stone markers of death and life, solemn and sacred mysteries, are trivialized with plastic bones.