Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living with the Dead

I have finally figured out, I think, why my wife, Lynn, loves old cemeteries.

On a recent trip, we found ourselves making repeated trips to the churchyard where Robert Frost and many Revolutionary-era folk are buried. It's in Bennington, Vt., next to the Old First Church. One visit would have been enough for me; Lynn insisted on multiple visits.

The stones there, as in similar churchyards we saw in Charleston and Lenox, MA, tell many stories, often with weeping willows and angel faces carved into the headstones, some of which are slowly being defaced by time and the weather, thus obliterating the very people being memorialized.

But then I realize that such cemeteries are for the living. They are testaments to the devotion of those who erected the stones. Often in the dates and inscriptions, we can see a life story outlined: Mrs. Mindwell Hopkins, "amiable consort" of Maj. Wait Hopkins, was buried in Bennington in 1785. (These names alone are worth reading.) Often there are family members remembered along with the "relics" (widows) of notable men of the time.

"Sacred to the Memory of Ebeneezer Fitch" sounds fictional, Dickensian; yet this stone gives the highlights of a life bravely lived long ago, when life tended to be short and harsh.

There is nothing morbid or depressing in such a place since old cemeteries are full of beauty, even if the stones are moss-covered and nearly illegible.

I think this is what Lynn has taught me about the joy of visiting cemeteries. It has something to do with the variety of the tributes, the style of grieving, the love that prompted the memorials in the first place.

Our utlimate cemetery trip was to Pere Lachaise in Paris, which is in a class by itself, with tombs of Chopin and other composers, of Oscar Wilde, even Heloise and Abelard (and rocker Jim Morrison). You have to be famous to get in there. It's like a city of the dead for the emulation of the living.

One of my perks as an altar boy years ago in St. Louis was to ride in a limousine to the cemetery after a funeral Mass; not only was I excused from class but the undertaker gave us boys a tip ($10--a lot in 1952). These trips introduced me (without my knowing it until later) to the cemetery as a place where the cycle of life comes full circle. Since a graveyard is a natural part of life, it was never for me a site of Halloween-style fear.

Since I have spent so much of my life communing with the dead in reading and teaching about events long before the modern era, it's only natural that I would see a visit to old cemeteries (where plastic flowers are mercifully absent) as an opportunity to step into the past--or rather into a timeless zone where life and death coexist with love.

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