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.

Unmapped

“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”
—Wallace Stegner

You were floating by fast when I caught you,
Gave you a place to anchor and watched you
Begin to call your home into being.
All you needed for it you brought with you,
So I left you to it, and before I knew it,
We were cemented together here,
Securely as the roots of the mountains.

I wonder where you came from and
Where you might have gone without me.
I wonder what great ships you could
Have beached somewhere else, though who knows
What our children’s children might see
Come to pass right here, in this place
Where we’ve been set, accreting life.

A little carbon and calcium
Is all it takes to move heaven and earth
Around ourselves and find a niche that works,
Amid vast, acidifying oceans.
But of all the polyps in all the reefs
In all the world, just this spot was prepared
For your unmapped geography of hope.

Image: Crystalline Iceplant, Santa Barbara County, Calif., June 2019.

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.