In the midst of death, let there be life

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When someone asks, “Read any good books recently?” I often reply, “Yes. Read any good graveyards?” Graveyards comprise a compelling variety of distilled biography. The lives they describe may be humdrum, but that only makes them easier to relate to. Just to read the names on the headstones and monuments is, I feel, an act of commemoration. For that reason always make a point of reading every name on a war memorial.

I don’t feel drawn to graveyards in the way some people are. But they are interesting in all sorts of ways, from the different feelings they inspire in people, to their location, to the ways they are used. In the UK they tend to be silent and drear. Visitors busy themselves with with tending. They tend not to talk. They sit or stand contemplatively. It all happens in the open air whatever the weather. There’s never anywhere to go for a nice hot drink and a biscuit and a bit of a chat with other visitors.

We want our dead to be part of us, yet we set them apart from us. I don’t know that we’ve made the relationship an easy one.

Over in the US, you can’t keep the irrepressible Ruth Coker Burks out of graveyards. She collects them. A taphophile, she calls herself. Here’s a typically exuberant account:

Look at this cemetery that I found today!!…My neighbor, Cheryl, Mitch and I decided to take a long drive today to the southern part of the state that we don’t normally go to…as we were driving south, I spotted a tiny cemetery with Ivy covered trees and a hand laid stone wall…it only had about 12 graves in it and no room for more…I made Mitch turn around and let me out…As I walked up to the cemetery I found that it had a beautiful gate that was wide open...

Ruth writes in an engagingly breathless style and rejoices in her choicest finds – for example, two stones commemorating buried amputated legs (13 December 2009). She is well worth reading and you’ll find her blog here.

Over at The Daily Undertaker, Patrick McNally, that wise and humane thinker about all things funereal, wrote recently about graveyards: what may we do in them, what should we absolutely not do? How about cycling? Or having a picnic?

Over at Full Life, Good Death, Nancy Manahan and Becky Bohan’s blog, Nancy tells this story from her childhood:

“Kids, look, there’s the cemetery where we would stop when I was a girl.”

We would look out the backseat car window to the grassy graveyard where Mom was pointing.

“The trip to Rochester used to take so long that when the weather was nice, we would rest here and have a picnic.”

My mother said this every time my father drove us past the roadside cemetery on the two-hour drive to see our Rochester, Minnesota, relatives or visit the Mayo Clinic.
As little girl, I was horrified. Eating among the gravestones seemed like a creepy custom from another country and another century.

“Mom, how could you eat on top of all those dead people?!”

“Oh, it was lovely!” she would reply. “The cemetery was halfway between Madelia and Rochester, so sometimes Aunt Daisy and Uncle Louie would meet us here. We’d put a blanket on the grass, and after sandwiches and lemonade, Uncle Louie and Papa would smoke and take a nap. Later Mama and I would go back to Rochester for a few days’ visit, and Papa would return home alone.”

Now that they have a home in Mexico, and have witnessed the annual Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead ceremonies, Nancy has entirely changed her views about eating on top of the dead:

Rather than seeming quaint or creepy, this custom now feels admirable. Breaking bread among the graves is a way to normalize death, to nourish the connections between the living and our loved ones who have passed before us, and to enjoy the bounty of life in a beautiful and sacred setting.

Over at the Daily Undertaker once more, Patrick McNally’s most recent post is a description of the Chinese festival of Ching Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day. A must-read.

If we had set days here in the UK when everyone gathered in a spirited and gregarious way, what a difference that would make.

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