Saturday, October 8, 2011

There Are the Dead

A final resting place is also a good temporary resting place. Do you recall the old burying grounds you have chanced upon on your walks out in the country? The timeless calm, as if an intaken breath was captive forever. As if life merely entered another state and was now going on, in the air around you. The breezes touch the headstones, then touch you.

On a childhood visit to Vermont, I was introduced to the notion of the graveyard as picnic ground. Those buried here had certainly seen it all, having lain in the ground for a hundred fifty years or more; I had the feeling, even then, that they welcomed the sensation of youthful feet on their heads and arms. The farms that had once been their homes were now vanished, and so it seemed they had been forgotten, untied and left to float away on this boat of land.

Still, for a child, it is not easy to shake a deep fear of the afterlife. And when I saw what looked like a white branch from a tree, though no tree was in sight in the hillside pasture, lying on a grave, panic gripped me. A bone. It was a message. Or perhaps a warning.

Indeed: This is what you will become.

I couldn't stand the idea then; now it bothers me far less, which is good, since I ought to get familiar with something that will soon get familiar with me.

It was the hip bone of a cow.

Twenty-five years ago a friend and I were working on a book proposal we called Where the Dead Are. It was going to be a guide to beautiful, picnic-worthy, eerie, strange, notable cemeteries. The kind you happen on, the surprise beyond the old hedgerow, the orchard-side collection of leaning, lichen-stained, heaved-up or sunken-in plots that give a frisson of happy-sad. The full circle that is really impossible to grasp, though you want to try, at least here, in the sweet outdoors.

Where Nelly and I went walking this morning, a trail in the wide valley between mountains, we pass a tiny split-rail-encircled family burying ground with four graves. The stones tell a brief story of the Winne family, whose named, misspelled, is borne on a road sign a mile away. Their tale is that they lived here, farmed here, died here; the paterfamilias went off to war, then returned. There is no more, although at one time there was.

On the other side of the loop trail is a modern cemetery, in which interments still occur. The lawn is mowed, and the stones stand upright and white. This kind of rigorous order is more frightening to me than the lost, weather-beaten act of reclamation by larger nature that is evident in the forgotten burying grounds of the past. It speaks of a resistance to the inevitable that is deeply creepy. On some of the graves I see colored glass tubes on stakes; these had always puzzled me as a child, when imagining can be a terrible thing. What were they? I had thought of ashes, of spirits, of the incense that the Greek Orthodox priest had shaken into the air at my great-uncle's funeral, the first dead body I had ever seen. That odor sometimes recurs--I get a whiff of something just like it sometimes, out in the open, and then I think: Death. Death is about to visit.

These tubes, I now know, are everlasting lights. You can currently get them in solar- or battery-powered versions. Candles are more appropriate, I think; they too go out with the wind. Things are not supposed to last. We do well to remember it. And to visit it, on lovely peaceful days when we are out walking, and stumble on a peaceful scene with just enough edge to make us feel alive.


Shybiker said...

Nice piece. Interesting ideas. And, of course, appealing language.

I find the reality of cemeteries to be much different from our cultural expectation of them. In real life, they don't scare me at all and their normalcy reminds me that death is not a supernatural event but a natural one.

Kent said...

"No I...ain't wastin' time no more
Time goes by like...a hurricane."

Allman Brothers

After a visit to a cemetery, I return home lively, determined to make that day better. Better, sometimes just for me, but sometimes for someone else. Good read, Melissa!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

You know, I think we should all plan regular meetings in cemeteries. It adds juice to human contact.

Anonymous said...

I’ve always loved cemeteries, but could never begin to expound on them as beautifully as you, Melissa. As a kid, riding my bicycle on the back road between Otego and Oneonta, there was a small 19th century plot, maybe six stones, but now part of an unrelated farm. They still took care of it as if it were theirs. Years later, I’d trudge through all the little overgrown cemeteries in Essex County NY and imagine the history of these families. My sister dragged me to some old writer’s colony in the woods near Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks and another forgotten cemetery in the woods. It’s probably why I majored in history. My favorite now is the small wooded cemetery in Champlain NY where my father (and 7 or 8 generations before him) is buried. There are new graves and graves from the 1700s and raised, stone-bound areas representing the suits in a deck of cards.

When I ride my old GS around southern Wisconsin on some summer weekends, I get sucked into every old cemetery I glimpse through the trees.

Thanks, Melissa….motorcycles are how I discovered you, but it’s just a pleasure to read you on anything at all.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Bert, thank you.

You've also given me some great ideas on where to stop when I have an itch to see those places where human history is compressed, yet marked so simply.