I love cemeteries. I get that it’s an odd thing to admit, nevertheless, it is how I feel.
In Minsk, Belarus, my parents’ apartment building was located next to a field, across the road from a cemetery. My mother used to say that it made for quiet neighbors. I remember some of the graves had little black cast iron fences around them, and many of the gravestones had black and white photographs of the departed.
When I was in Journalism school, we had an assignment to write three paragraphs. One was about a place, another was about a person and the third … well, the third I can’t remember. When it came to writing a place, I chose to write about Ft. Logan National Cemetery, the military cemetery in Denver where my former professor and hero, Mr. Pearson is buried. Military cemeteries reflect the military’s discipline and structure — they are places of precision, honor and truth, because all the headstones are the same size, shape, and color. The truth spoken by the cemetery lies in its uniformity — death is the greatest equalizer, making a pauper equal to the billionaire. Ft. Logan has lovely, gentle green hills, a small lake here and there, and the grounds are peppered with trees. Located in the West Side of Denver, the cemetery is also graced with a terrific view of the mountains.
Cemeteries, of course, aren’t really for people buried in them. They are for the visitors. When it comes to civilian cemeteries, I like the variety of headstones and the meandering layout of the “streets.” I like to stroll out among the headstones, reading the names, dates, relationships and epitaphs.
When Jeff and I visited Ireland, in 1997, we found this to be a land with plentiful, ancient cemeteries. First, our hotel in Dublin was adjacent to a cemetery, with many graves dating from the 1600 to 1700s. To both of us, this made the hotel more quaint, more desirable — more special. The moss-covered markers and the casualness of the location of the graveyard made me think of how ordinary death is, how mundane. We also visited even older cemeteries, with even older graves, some with the quintessential Celtic crosses on them. Cemeteries contain the whole histories of the countries. They are places of hushed reverence — not quite that of churches, but definitely of the dwelling space of deities.
When I told my husband that back in high school, I once made out in a cemetery, he was not a bit fazed. He said, “When I was a teenager, I did too. It is quiet, isolated, and you won’t be interrupted.”
They may be places of reverence, but they are also quiet and private, and, in cases of small towns, not under lock and key. Not so long ago the only places in United States that had graves were churchyards, considered consecrated ground. But more space was needed for our dead folks, so the graveyards became their own independent entities. The first of these in America was in Boston, Massachusetts. As the people began to migrate west, the entire country became a cemetery — folks in wagons didn’t have a great deal of time, so they buried their dead, said a few words, and moved on. Our national highway system is built on the graves of the pioneers.
I get, if not closure, then a renewed sense of peace whenever I visit a grave of a loved one. It’s the closest I come to being with them again, although I know that what is buried there is not truly and really THEM. Standing near graves always makes me feel my mortality, always makes me see anew how fragile life is and how thin the line is that separates life from death.
Therefore, visiting cemeteries always forces me to never take anything, any day, any breath, for granted — death being a reminder to truly live. And that’s a reminder that is important to live with.