Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I Love Cemeteries

Tonight I watched the sun set from Lincoln Cemetery.  It is at the top of a hill on a gravel road a few miles from my house.  I love cemeteries and I love sunsets, so getting to do this is special enough to salvage a pretty bad day.

Lincoln is similar to Springdale Cemetery, which sits atop a hill half a mile up a gravel road from where I lived as a teenager.  Both hold just a few hundred stones and standing at their edge you can see over the fields to homes and highways.  Small Iowa cemeteries like these tend to be made up of relatively few family names, but stones with each name may span over 200 years of birth and death dates.

One of my only good memories of one of my neighbors was standing on the gravel just outside the gate of Springdale Cemetery.  Our pre-adolescent bickering was abruptly stopped by a spectacular sunset.  My ignorant, pigheaded, bullying neighbor shut up for a few minutes and watched the sunset with me.  It was my first clue that he might have a soul.  It was a red herring.  Years of living in the same tiny town with him proved he was a blinkered ass with no inner life of any kind but it's still a good memory.

There is a cemetery just blocks from my house that is considerably larger than Lincoln, but it is on the edge of town, not out in the country where I can be alone with the dead, the stones, birds and bugs.  Tonight as dusk fell at Lincoln Cemetery the air was filled with dragonflies.  On a really good summer or fall evening you might be blessed with bats in a place like this.  They quietly circle, eating mosquitoes and getting harder and harder to see as darkness falls.  Of course there are birds, and out in the country you can really hear them.  All of them.

Fundamentally my love of cemeteries isn't about the flora and fauna and the quiet is just a bonus.  It's about death and history.  I fear death terribly.  I'm not one of those brave souls who is ready to go whenever it comes to pass.  I don't know what's on the other side and it bugs the shit out of me.

Cemeteries, if you happen to have my particular set of fears, are a brilliant way of dealing with this.  They are these beautiful, peaceful places entirely dedicated to coping with and processing death.  And it works.  While I'm there, surrounded by the long dead, and maybe a few recently dead, it's OK that death bothers me. It's like the dead and I are working it out together.  They were once where I am and I'm hurtling, headlong, toward where they are.  Somehow it feels like we are in it together.

The names and dates on the stones also connect me to the dead.  The older I get the more birth and death dates I read that fall within my own life span.  These stones may be next to one who's dates are all from the 19th century, or even older*.  This brings a unique kind of continuity to the experience of strolling through a graveyard and trying to understand it all.  How many generations of people have walked on this same ground, watering the grass with their tears?  Cemeteries bring continuity to our grief by giving it a place to be shared and returned to, not just over the course of years but of centuries.

One of my most treasured concert experiences is also relevant here.  I once heard Linford Detweiler of Over The Rhine introduce the song Later Days by saying "This is the saddest song I have ever written and therefore the happiest."  The sadness built into a cemetery can also be comforting and bring peace with it.  If you happen to be there on a beautiful summer night at sunset, it might all work together and even make you happy.

* Pre-1800 dates on headstones are rare in Iowa but they do exist.

1 comment:

Dr. Z said...

Neil,
I had never thought of a cemetery in these terms, but it is a resting place for old souls that can provide a new perspective on our thoughts. Thank you for sharing your ideas and feelings.
Leigh