Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

Why I Wrote a Poem

Last night, I dreamed I finally cried
About everything that’s happened.
Truthfully, I dreamed that we
Were in a morgue, and I saw you
Gasp, recognize a woman’s face,
Glazed and pale, mouth agape and
A crust of pulmonary blood
Staining her bony chin and then
I recognized her, too, and wept.

Up to this point in the crisis
I’ve managed to hold things inside.
Truthfully, I’ve not been at all
Sure what to feel, or how, or when—
I’m still not used to pandemics—
And so all my feelings jumble
And fail to register outside,
Making my face a mirror of
A confused and exhausted soul.

There have been both joys and sorrows
Watching the world change day by day.
Truthfully, I want it to stop
So I can sit still, take a breath,
And let things ooze out on paper
And begin to see what I think
About all this, or anything.
I want to rest, to plead, to rage
And I want to learn how to cry.

But I have been writing what I can,
Breadcrumbs for my future feelings.
Truthfully, I follow a rite—
Approaching life’s holy places
With tender phrases to hold close
Things which defy analysis
Or would be profaned by bare speech—
Pull on the ephod, take the blood
And incense into the presence.

In the Interests of Public Health

Stay at home, and please,
Whatever you do,
Don’t let your house go
Wandering away
With or without you.
Shelter in place,
Even if that place
Happens to be a
Bathtub or closet
Or a nearby ditch.
Keep working from home—
Electricity
And the Internet
Or a place to sit
Notwithstanding.
To help your neighbors
In their hour of need,
Please don’t employ your
Chainsaw, tarps, and tools,
But stay far away.
Don’t let the germs have
A chance to run through
The erstwhile forest
To sow disaster
And reap the whirlwind.

Image: Tornado Damage, Hamilton county, Tennessee, April 2020.

The Glow, or Recommendations for Isolation

No, the pixels will not contain your grief.
There’s not an app to bear the weight you feel
Pressing on your chest. The shortness of breath
That might be pangs, or tears, or worse? (you fear),
Or the steady terror of getting news
You don’t want from a loved one you can’t hold.

What can these ones and zeroes, (vapors!) hold?
Can push notifications deliver grief
As surely as they bring you breaking news?
A post, a text, lacks the heft to make you feel
What you should, like a phone call or knock—fear
That rises fast, before you take a breath.

But these screens we trust already trace breath.
The pulse-oximeter puts a choke-hold
On his finger, grasping to measure fear,
A glowing green EKG observes grief,
Making sure to mark precisely when you’ll feel
You missed her last moment like last night’s news.

Bury the scream that comes with all such news.
Shut up! Keep silent, while you catch your breath—
How dare you show the children what you feel,
That there are things which put your life on hold.
You can’t spend many resources on grief
When you’re working hard stocking up on fear.

But you weren’t born to live in whirling fear
Of whatever is swirling in the news.
Closer in, there is more to grief than grief—
Death, yes, but missing your niece’s first breath,
Weddings with no one to have and to hold
Promising things that it’s too soon to feel.

Whatever you do, please don’t forget to feel.
Don’t let a blue glow medicate your fear.
Let your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin take and hold
All the wonders that never make the news.
Flex your ribcage to draw the deepest breath.
Whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for grief.

Home alone, you’ll feel all news is bad news,
As you scan for fear and hear your own breath
Craving someone to hold you and your grief.

Image: Fog and Sun, Hamilton County, Tenn., March 2020.