Places Of Repose
First a short explanation of the authors’ predilection for loitering in places that few visit voluntarily:
Cemeteries have always had a strange sort of allure in human imagination. There is the schlock Hollywood version of cemeteries, the version that heightens our fears and exploits our confusion about the nature of death. There are the deeply personal places of eternal rest that have a better basis in reality, both inferred and emotional, to those of us who still exist.
These places stand as a tangible testament of love, of remembrance and longing for those known lost and gone from us. Here also is a place to honor our ancestors and the great and small who made differences in our lives – even if indirectly. These graves and gravestones, by and through which we make our love and respect known, have marked the spots on earth we view as sacred by construct- tangible monuments seem to express our collective helplessness in the face of the inevitable- and, strangely, the hope of avoiding of the condition of non-existence altogether.
Oddly cemeteries are the only place where Cemetery Humor is considered to be of questionable taste. The deceased father of one of my best friends had a marker placed that reads:
“ THIS IS BORING”
He wasn’t the brooding type of Hibernian.
Cemeteries are a place of contemplation, reflection and peace. They are a physical reminder of those who came before us, and a reminder of that which inevitably awaits us all regardless of fame, creed, deed and self-image. Cemeteries are the physical affirmation of the great Mystery.
Upside: cemeteries are one of the only places where one might openly have extended conversations with the dearly Departed. Even Psychiatrists approve of this activity…but only on a limited time basis.
Cemeteries, and the monuments erected to the dearest departed, are a primal affirmation of the final equality of all human beings. In life it is important to affirm the things that set us apart as individuals- but Death is a sort of biological democracy, where-upon, after a lifetime of conjecture, debate, opinions and votes, none of your bargaining will matter. King, Queen, Hilton or Crack addict- your inevitable end will come. Corruptible flesh to dust shall return.
After all: Death is nature’s way of ‘REPURPOSING’ humanity. (Purpose– now there’s a philosophical conundrum to consider standing in the shadow of a bier.)
Cemeteries define the primal need to mark the spot of love, grief, deep loss, and in the context of erected monuments of marble and polished stone, our last token of respect for a life lost, and a focus for the contemplation of a silence that somehow takes us all by surprise, no matter how forewarned we may be.
These gardens of stone are, to the historian, to the bereaved, the philosopher and the poet- quite indispensable. They are also a nice quiet place to eat lunch, sit under a blooming magnolia tree, hide from the dispatcher and sketch in pencil. This is how I came to love cemeteries as a young man and hooky playing taxi driver- first in Miami, Florida- and later in Washington, DC.
There is logic in this. Few taxi drivers are robbed in cemeteries. Few taxi drivers get walk-up fares in cemeteries. Few annoying dispatchers, road raging maniacs, or repressed skin-flint non-tipping passengers will follow you into a cemetery to harass you. Other than the whirring of a weed-whacker, or the steady drone of a lawnmower- there is silence. There is little to interrupt a train of thought. No one taps you on the shoulder to ask you for directions or spare change.
I may be considered a bit eccentric by some, but rest assured, my dear reader- I am not a ghoul, a professional or obsessive mourner, clinically depressed(usually), in a Goth band or writing a spin -off of an Anne Rice novel. Lets be clear on one point- just because I love cemeteries doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to take up permanent residence in one. And while we’re clarifying points let me add that I dislike the modern mall mentality of the “Memorial Garden” in which the slightly sunken bronze plaques facilitate the efficient mowing of the grass in what might be just as well a football field or Frisbee preserve. There is little drama in such places. If this is the definition of Perpetual Care I prefer tall grass.
( BTW: It takes REAL skill to play Frisbee in a Victorian Cemetery. I speak from experience.)
I will openly admit a fascination for cemetery and funerary rites and rituals. I am mesmerized by the architecture, and horticulture employed in cemeteries. I am fascinated by the individual stories of those buried and gone, who no longer have the ability to tell their own tales, but who leave clues in a few simple sentences chipped in stone or carved into elaborate mausoleums in the old-style graveyards. I am amazed at how one’s imagination can bestow attributes and empathy on a stone marker of a deceased person, unknown and unseen, and wonder at the characters who once walked, laughed, cursed, cried, spit, shat, prayed, sung, swum, procreated, sacrificed, begged, lied and cooked breakfast among us. Now they are merely names and dates chipped in granite for our assumed sense of security and universal order. Markers, some plain and forthright- others beautiful and sublime works of art stand only to be visited in cycles of longing by survivors, until they too become dates chipped in stone.
These are places of faded glory. Simple lives. Great achievements. Broken hearts. Lives of duty and humility. Unfinished business. Raw ambition interrupted. Lives lost too soon. Those now perished who lived lives of grace, or lives of brutality, or in supreme sacrifice to mankind. Sometimes the aforementioned, having achieved all of these things and more in just a few years, will perish and by some strange twist of fate, having made massive changes to humanity, become re-known after death. Some markers are just too plaintively heartbreaking to recount- the stillborn, or infants lost- some with only a few days on Earth.
For these reasons, by virtue of the persons of power and motivation who have lived and died here, Washington D.C.’s cemeteries are a subject of great immersion, study, and spiritual rubber-necking.
Cemeteries are less about death than the way to live life. Cemeteries show how surely Spring will come and flowers can bloom, wrap around and crack cold granite, and tarnish polished bronze. Cemeteries teach you how not to waste time. Cemeteries are wisdom in stone.
There are stories here.