I derive a great deal of pleasure by wandering among people who are dead. I have always found graveyards to be ideal places to contemplate life. Understand, however, that there have been times, when shadows lengthen, I find being among the dead is an unsettling experience. But most of the time I find it creatively satisfying to find myself staring and thinking as I stand in front of a tombstone.
There are many gravesites that I am drawn to: my family’s plot, famous monuments, cenotaphs, 19th Century landscaped cemeteries and old forgotten burying grounds at the edges of fields or overshadowed by trees. I love trees in a cemeteries. They provide shade when one needs it the most.
In recent months, after I moved to the north country of New York State, I found the perfect excuse to visit graveyards. You see, I have joined an internet organization that uses volunteers to photograph headstones at the request of family members who do not live close enough to take these pictures themselves. It is a great site for the genealogists and local historians to locate the stone of someone important to them.
This past summer, I stood in the middle of a treeless cemetery looking for the requested names. The sun blazed down on me like an open furnace. I swatted black flies and gnats. My broad-brimmed straw hat did little to keep me comfortable. I headed to a nearby cluster of trees and sat on an old stone wall for relief from the torments of a hot July afternoon. I began to think about what I was seeing. I began to put together my own version of the local history I was recording in pixels for the last few hours.
I thought of the words spoken over the remains of the departed. I did some quick mental calculations. It was a small cemetery of perhaps three hundred interments,(rather small in comparison to the acreage of Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn). My crude math came out like this:
- Each grave contained an individual whose life connected in countless ways to others (some of whom lay nearby).
- These individuals all (with some exceptions) had words spoken about them during and after their final days.
- I assumed that these words, mostly prayers I would guess, were uttered when they were on the sick bed, at their funeral, at the graveside service and, finally, in obituaries or stories told after the burials.
This adds up to many words. Were these words heartfelt, honest and spoken in good faith? Did the preacher know them? Did he (or she) know if they were in love with the wife of the nearby farmer, slept with a cousin, had impure thoughts about a sister, desire another (male or female), drank too much, spent the family piggy bank in a rigged game of cards in a room behind the makeshift tavern, die of grief, kill someone, wish someone dead or walk out behind the woodshed on a rainy afternoon and put a bullet through their head?
The famous and powerful had the means to pay for such high-spoken eulogies, truthful or not. The poor and hardworking immigrant, dirt farmer, losers and forgotten souls could not afford this price to post-mortem glory. The words for them were likely to be few and unremembered. The preacher maybe knew their foibles, but certainly not all of them. So many aspects of a human soul are resting six feet under.
Then I began to mentally wander away from the graveyard. What of those buried in Potter’s Fields? What about the drifters, bums, hobos and travelling salesmen who found their darkness in now overgrown motor courts, Coney Island fleabag hotels or at the edge of a cornfield beside the Rock Island Line roadbed?
And what of those unborn fetuses and premature births, lying in a few feet of soil beside a nunnery wall?
My own conservative estimate is that for every marked and maintained burial site, there are six with no stone or flower to mark the persons time on this earth.
It makes a simple R.I.P. all the more meaningful.