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.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Leaves and branches,
Oscilloscopes tracing
Wind from gathering storms,
Taunt my habit
Of hunting curses
under each blessing
And copping exhaustion
To avoid getting the shakes
From a momentary lapse
Of despair. Sunlight
Always gets me down,
Keeping me inside lest
It warm my eyelids and ask me to rest
In a dangerously peaceful grace.

I’m not sure I know
How to say something earnest
when nothing is weighing me down,
Not sure how to speak
An uplifting word
Without the ashes
Of profanity
Clinging to my tongue.
There is a way of seeking joy
That requires
Gouging out one’s eyes,
And I like looking
Too much to try it,
Even on sale.

It’s easier to look
For beauty in the dark,
Glowing brighter the farther from
What is plainly seen.
If I learned to listen
A little more
To the upbeat bass line
Throbbing beneath
The frantic tenor
Of making ends meet,
Maybe I’d have
A little more
Levity
though I’d speak less.

That’s when I start to laugh,
Catching the joke
That fear is only joy
Hiding behind
Something we will not understand
Until it passes us by.
This is what the trees
Tried to say when
In the early morning
They stood, still and bronzed
In the rosy mist,
But I couldn’t hold
A smile long enough
To muster robust thanks.

Now that they scratch
One another and flail
Before the advance
Of autumn air,
I see plainly what comeliness
The failing light wants to hide
Where the glimmer is weakest.
How carelessly we fall
Back into hope.
So little a splash
Of fuel on a smoldering wick
Sets a lamp flickering, for you
Cannot burn out
What had never been lit.

Image: Clouds and trees in slanted light, my front yard in Tennessee, August 2020.

Fire One Morning

Was it for nothing that the blueberry
      In the backyard,
            Its fruit consumed,
      Its year’s growth pruned,
            Caught fire one morning?
I took off my shoes, there in the kitchen,
      Beholding it aflame.

Is this newfound bioluminescence?
      Can a shrub throb with photons
            As surely as neon waves,
      Plankton, a lampshade jelly,
            The lure of a dragonfish,
Alive with luciferin like foxfire
      That startles campers awake?

All life must glow, as dewdrops on a fern,
      The shimmer of scales
            On a fritillary wing,
      Mucosal sheen of a passing slug.
            If the paper-skin of the deceased
Can be translucent, then a blueberry
      Bush may burn yet not be consumed.

Light is not light unless compared to dark,
      And so my squinting
            At the world, charged as it is,
      Is for the dullness of my soul.
            What sparkles through the glass
So dimly may be glory, or it may
      Be the devil, crouching at the door.

Image: Blueberry bush, my backyard, November 2018.

Voicemail

dear god,

i tried to call satan the other day.
nobody answered, so i left a voicemail,
i hope that’s all right. 

i don’t really need a call back,
just some curses for my enemies,
not so much to kill them or anything,
but a little nudge to scare them straight.

i’d normally ask you for this, god,
but you seem busy, or at least
i think you only want us to talk to you
about personal problems like sin,
or sickness, or salvation and stuff.

i know you’re all about mercy and grace, but,
frankly you seem a little wishy-washy
on vengeance and violence, or so I’ve been told.

sure there’s stuff in the bible
about people asking you to smash
some babies from babylon on the rocks,
and david wanted you to send blindness
and seizures on the guys who were chasing him.
maybe you heard him, i don’t know,
since he was a king and all.
do you really want me to bug you about this?
it all seems more in satan’s lane. 

i called him one time before,
trying to score some personal advice on
something you said i probably shouldn’t do.
he didn’t answer then, either.
i guess he was with another customer?
that seems like something he’s pretty good at,
helping people be their best selves.
i think he really just wants to be like you,
you know, but with his own special style. 

i tried to call satan the other day,
but the phone just rang and rang.
i guess maybe he’s busy, too. besides,
i don’t really need his help to do my own thing.

Image: Cemetery oaks, West Feliciana Parish, La., June 2016.