Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Personal Thoughts on Cemeteries

A cemetery in Nashville, TN

When people who know me find out about this blog, they sometimes comment that it doesn't seem like something I would be interested in or they ask me if I am obsessed with death. The latter statement could not be further from the truth. To address the former statement, writing about cemeteries seems only natural as I grew up thinking of them as a sort of outdoor museum and have always found them interesting.

If anything, I have a tinge of fear about death and funerals that most other people seem to be able to overcome. I always wondered secretly why some people can walk into a funeral with the ease with which they walk through a grocery store. I've always been exceedingly uncomfortable with funerals to the point I sometimes get physically ill.

I think what disturbs me most about funerals is the unnaturalness of it all--the living are often expected to keep up appearances even after news of a loved one's death. I remember hearing classmates in an Appalachian sociology course at Shawnee State University talk about wakes, eating in the same room as a dead body at a visitation and loud parties at which everyone drinks and cries too much. Though I am only a few generations removed from a log cabin with no electricity in a holler in Kentucky, I was intrigued by the contrast between a "proper" funeral nearer Cincinnati and these funerals reported by my classmates. Even my mom can recall placing coins on the eyes of deceased family members, staying up all night in the room with the coffin and relatives taking photographs of the deceased to keep up on the mantle. We even recently discovered a postmortem photograph of my husband's ancestor.

I tend to find many funerary customs to be unnatural (such as embalming) and I think that some Pagan part of me is disturbed by the practice in Christian churches of using the same altar for marriages, baptisms and funerals.

I could go much, much deeper into my thoughts on this, but I would rather talk about how this girl who is appalled by funerals loves the places where the caskets are deposited and memorialized.

As I mentioned before, I see cemeteries as outdoor museums packed full of history. Often more reliable than paper documents, the details of a life are literally in stone to record and remember someone who came and went before me. While I would be uncomfortable touching a dead body at a funeral as I sometimes see people do, to touch a tombstone, run my fingers over the names and dates...this lets me feel a connection to the past without feeling intrusive.

There was a time in my life when I was fearful of cemeteries and could not imagine entering one alone or at night. Now I pull the car over whenever I see an interesting burial ground.

For me, the fascination isn't so much with death, but rather with the lives recorded like pages in a neat little book, all in a row, for me to read at leisure. It's the chance to recognized my mortality without being faced with the gruesome details. It's about the symbols and deciphering them like a hidden code few remember.

I've stood in front of (or on, as is often the case in Europe where the dead are entombed in floors) many famous graves: Newton, Dickens, JFK...and there is a sense of honor, awe and respect in those moments. I can stop, even if for just a moment in a crowded tourist area, and zoom in on myself, in that little piece of time, holding a private conference with someone long dead.

Cemeteries are catalogs, records, silent songs. They are a testament of human dignity and caring.

And that is how I am obsessed not with death, but with the life stories these places tell.