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.

Into the Woods: Seven Islands Birding State Park

With gathering indoors but a happy memory these days, it’s a great time to get out and hike. We’ve done our fair share over the past few months, but it’s been a while since I’ve posted any trip reports. Some of this is because it’s been a family affair, and carrying a 2-year old limits both how far you can walk and how many pictures you can take while doing it. We’ve hit some of our old favorite spots (Huckleberry Knob), some new ones (Conasauga Snorkel Hole), some farther afield (Hawksbill Mountain in Linville Gorge Wilderness), and lots of walks close to home (Tennessee Riverpark, Chickamauga Battlefield, and Enterprise South Nature Park).

A couple of weeks ago, though, I had occasion to be in Knoxville, and the weather coaxed me to spend some time outdoors. I don’t care much for hiking in the lowland South in the summer—too hot, too humid, too many bugs, snakes, and poison ivy. That week, though, a fading tropical storm working its way up the East Coast pulled some drier, cooler air around its west side, making July in East Tennessee a trifle more bearable for a couple of days. When you’ve lived in this part of the world for a few decades, you know better than to let those opportunities slip by—it might be months before another really nice day comes along.

I opted to take advantage of this particular day to check out a spot I’ve seen signs for but never visited—Seven Islands Birding State Park. I’d read that it had access to the French Broad River, so I went initially with the aim of fishing, but found a lot more.

For starters, this place is beautiful. The River defines the space, looping around the whole park, and there is a very nice footbridge connecting the main path to one of the islands. Due to its open, meadowy nature, the views are also impressive. The Great Smoky Mountains rise just a few miles south of the park, and from one of the hilltops, the whole ridge (including Mount LeConte) opens into view. There are also a few ponds and marshes dotting the area.

Beyond that, the park lives up to the “birding” part of its name. There are birds everywhere. In just a few hours, I saw hawks, herons, and ducks, along with a bevy of songbirds like goldfinches, indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, several different warblers, and other more common species. I heard, though did not see, a few bobwhite quail, too. This was a treat. It was so common to hear their tell-tale whistle in rural Georgia in my childhood, but populations of these ground-dwelling birds have plummeted in recent decades due to habitat loss. In fact, preservation of prime quail habitat is the park’s key goal. There was plenty of non-bird wildlife, too. I saw dozens of deer, hundreds of rabbits, bullfrogs, bugs, a muskrat, and a field mouse.

I did fish (as is often the case, to no avail—with either flies or spinning lures), but the evening light lured me to spend a couple of hours exploring the trails, most of which are wide-mown paths through a tallgrass prairie ecosystem. This plant life was just as impressive as the animals. In a part of the country that is largely comprised of forests, farms, and urban development, it’s not often we get to see native grasses and field plants have their day. I’ve read that pre-colonial indigenous land management practices made extensive use of fire and other methods to cultivate Southeastern prairies as way to increase herds/flocks of game, but these practices haven’t been preserved, leading to a false ideal of “wilderness” that actually eliminates crucial habitat. This little state park is a testament to the wonders of restoration.

I probably rambled about 5 miles over the course of the afternoon, but barely scratched the surface of available trails. I’ll be back, and you should check it out, too. The park is just 5 minutes off I-40 (at exit 402), but a world away.

The Ground Knows

A week of rain swells the runoff creek,
Its muffled roar suffusing the woods
As the blank-blue sky of Northern air
Sidles down the plateau to cradle
Our valley in momentary chill
Fixing in time every splashed droplet.

Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum.

Ice grasps rocks and branches, layer by
Layer accreting into crowds of
Overnight stalagmites and a lone
Ephemeral agate at the end
Of a string dangling from a footbridge
That sways with each splash, marking the time
Till warmth rushes back, which the ground knows
Well, watching an Iris bloom too soon.

Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum

Yellow light bursts from a stem, calling
January’s bluff for a moment,
But it dies—a raisin in the frost,
Hoping for a slice of spring before
The long flat note of summer goads it
To try for glory again next year.

Life in Tennessee is a pendulum.

Image: Ice pendulum, Glen Falls, Hamilton County, Tenn., January 2020