Autumn And Gravestones

[Sitting and thinking at Forest Cemetery, St. Regis Falls, NY.]

Now that there is six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the trees are bare and the world outside our picture window is monochromatic, I can admit that I miss the late summer, the coolness of autumn days and the color of the trees.

I’ll also miss my favorite cemeteries. The best time of year to roam the country graveyards has come and gone. I’ll have to wait until mid-summer, after the mud and the bugs, until I can go “graving” again.

Does it all sound morbid to you? Too melancholy? It shouldn’t. I enjoy old cemeteries where I can learn local history and make up life stories of those who are interred beneath my feet.

And I have a perfectly good reason to wander the burying grounds. I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com. I get requests from people who live in places like Iowa and Nebraska asking for a photo of their grandfather’s headstone, or a memorial to an aunt’s grave they will never visit…never have a chance to leave a flower or a penny on the gravestone. They reply in emails how glad they are to have such a photo. It helps them build their family trees on Ancestry.com or some other genealogy site. Or (as they have written), share the photo with a grandchild, son, niece or spouse.

I love doing this for these people. I ask for nothing in return, except for a simple “thank you”.

Every human has a story that tells of their lives, even those who have been buried 150 years ago. I’ve stood over the graves and photographed headstones of suicides, murder victims, children who lived two days and men and women who lived to their 90+ years. I’ve wept over the graves of people whose families could only manage a hand-made headstone made of poured concrete and wrote the name and death dates with their fingers.

So many stories. So many headstones. So many epitaphs. So much grief.

But, time heals those wounds…they say.

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My Grave Nightmare: A Halloween Story

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Was it a day in full blinding sun or a night in deep gloomy shadows?  Was I asleep?  Awake?  I don’t remember.  No, it was both.  I wandered about in my dream with my eyes open, my dream that quickly became a nightmare.

What I looked upon were reflections of my darkest thoughts and fears.  My sub-conscience was trapped in the dreaded landscape of the land of the dead–the churchyard, the cemetery, God’s Little Acre, the lawns and fields of the departed.

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The angel stood on the rock and watched over the mute stones.

“O, What has come into this world that these once vital souls, who lived, loved and danced and sang must now repose until the Day of Judgement?”

I stood watching a man mourn the loss of his wife, lover, child, parent or self.  He cannot bear the loneliness of existence.  He pulls at the door.  It is solid and firm in its closure.  The door is thick bronze.  I touch his shoulder to offer solace.  He, too, is bronze.  It’s all metal and stone except for the dust that lies within.  He will remain in this torment until the acids of the rain reduce him to molecules.

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I walk on.  I don’t know why I do this.  I know what awaits me behind the next tree or over the next hill.  I walk into the trees.  Roots have begun to ensnare a gravestone.  The trees will absorb the crystals in another century.  Then, who will remember?  Where will the flowers be placed?  Where will the tears be spilled?

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The only comfort for my eyes are the green and living leaves, mosses and lichens.  Objects with life hold firmly to the ultimate symbol of death.

True irony.

I leave the dark trees and stand to meditate the monument before me.  I read the inscription.  It’s not an epitaph–it’s a promise:

Somewhere in Mexico–when you were hurting and in despair, I sent my angel to comfort you.  You are not alone.  I will be with you even unto the end of the earth. 

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There is an old house with an open door.  I grew up and passed from childhood into manhood in an old house.  I must enter.  I walk into the foyer and along the hallway.  There she is.  The transparent image of a long-ago lover.  Or is she the sister I never had? Or is she my mother as a beautiful youth?  Or is she someone unknown to me–coming to hold my wrinkled hand and place her young cold lips on my warm cheek.

Instead, she passes through me and ascends the stairs to meet another shade–someone her own age to play with–someone as spectral as she.  I watch her ascend the stairs and experience an overwhelming sense of melancholy.  I wished to know her in life.  I probably would have given her my heart–the heart she would break when she passed away.  My heart breaks as easily as ancient Oriental porcelain.

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I leave the house to her spirit.  I whisper a prayer for her restless soul.  Does anyone hear my words?  I walk on into a monochromatic world.  There at my feet is the grave of a man who is holding…is it his own face?  The head of someone he is longing for?  The visage of a family member?  I walk by and he continues to stare, without terror or anger into another pair of eyes.

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I have seen too much for a living and mortal mind to comprehend.  I want to be awake.  I don’t care if it’s just past mid-night or if the sky in the east is becoming pale.

Pale!  Enough pale! I want to be amongst the living and the breathing.  I want to mingle with lovers who embrace with a terrible passion for life.  I want to walk along flowered paths rich with bees and insects and birds singing for the company of a mate.  I want to help a lame farmer till his field, an old woman with arthritic joints knead her bread, a teacher tell his students the truth about life, calm a couples angry words, write a song a child will love, write a book that will make a man weep, kiss a wanton woman, drink a dark ruby wine, eat a mushroom in a desert, draw a picture that a blind person could see, dig a grave, speak words at a burial, pour Holy Water on an infant’s forehead, stand on a mountain peak so very sharp and pointed that the highest crystal pierces my thick boot soles and makes my foot bleed so that red stains on the heather will guide a lost soul to the low meadows.

I can feel sleep falling away.  But, I sit up in bed, still in a deep slumber and see my last vision for the night.

It’s the Angel of the Fog.  But is she fading away or growing more real?

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I rise and boil water for tea.  I wrap myself in flannel.  I rub the Sandman’s leftovers from the corners of my eyes.  I am fully awake and fully alive.  I will use and live this day to its fullest.  I will live with faith and hope.  As I slowly stir a drop of honey into my tea, I begin to wonder…

What will tonight bring me as I put my book down and let the dark envelop me?

When Life Ends: Still Rich: Still Poor

One of my pastimes is to wander cemeteries.  The older the better–and more interesting.  The artwork on gravestones is full of imagery and symbolism.  I’ve been in classic world-famous cemeteries like Pere Lachaise, in Paris, Evergreen, in my hometown and quaint very old graveyards that sit in the quiet spaces beside churches in England.  And, I’ve been to small towns in northern New York State where the burying grounds are simple, spare, small and, sadly, unkempt.  I’ve stood in old sections of these rural graveyards and looked with dismay at the vandalism of old heavy stones.

But, lately, I’ve been struck with the nature of a tomb’s edifice.  The variety is endless.  Some headstones are slate or granite.  Some are marble in various colors.  The mausoleums can be humble and decayed.  I’ve peered through the iron gates and have seen leaves and litter that have blown in.  Many are locked tight and prevent anyone from looking inside.  Some tombstones are large and elaborate, with poetic epitaphs.  And some tell only the name of the deceased with a date for the birth and the death.  Often, the death dates are not yet carved in place–even though the death occurred twenty years ago.  Why?  Could the family not afford the carving of the date?  Are there no family members left who know or care about the closure of a person’s life span?

I thought about how some individuals present themselves in life.  Big cars.  McMansions.  Silk ties.  Titles.  Wealth.

And I thought about how these individuals spend enormous amounts of money to place a monument to themselves (or their family does it) for others to gaze upon and stand in awe.  There is nothing wrong with that.  A person who worked hard…earned a great deal of money (hopefully honestly) is entitled to remind those left behind of how important he or she was.  Again, there is nothing wrong with any of that.

See what I mean:

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But what I sometimes find when I roam the graveyards of the rural cemeteries are headstones that are humble and sorrowful.  I find that a fair number of families simply cannot afford a fancy headstone or expensive laser etching of names and dates.  I came upon one the other day that caused me to pause.  I tried to walk on, but I was drawn back to the small stone.  I couldn’t tell what material it was made from but the lettering on the face broke my heart.  Here was a headstone for two boys who lived and died in the 1940’s.  Neither of them made it past two years of age.  But the lettering was handmade.  I don’t believe that this was on purpose.  I felt sure that the parents, the broken-hearted parents, simply could not afford professional lettering.

So they did it themselves.

I compared the two monuments in my mind.  One told a story of wealth—one didn’t.  The rich man who sits atop his edifice is proud of his accomplishments.

The parents of the two boys are buried a few feet away from them.  They sit atop nothing.

But, I’m sure…in my heart, I’m sure…that the parents are proud of their accomplishment.  They did what they could to tell the people like me who would one day wander past the boy’s graves, the year of their birth and the year of their untimely death.

Isn’t that really all we need to know?  Perhaps the rich man sat on the board of a bank or was a generous philanthropist.  But he played with a stick and a ball when he was a child.  He swam in a pond.  He had a dog.  But he went on to “greater” things.

The boy’s were not old enough to help with the hay in the late summer or even go to school.  Maybe they slid across an icy pond…without skates?  Perhaps they sat on their father’s knee and rubbed the stubble on his cheek.  Or heard him read a story.

We’ll never know.  There are no details about their short lives.

Only the essentials are known: they were born in a certain year and they died a few years later.

That’s all we know.

I walked on.

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