Sometimes I like to walk in cemeteries.
There are a few good reasons for this, the title of this essay being one of them.
But here are some other thoughts:
First, there’s usually very little, if any, traffic.
And if there is, it’s usually moving pretty slowly. Because of this, you have the option of doing one of two things: you can stick your headphones into your ears, crank up the music and even sing as loud (and in my case, as badly) as you want. Who’s gonna complain?
Or, you can keep the music in your pocket and listen to the quiet. They’re usually big enough places that you can get away from the access roadway and just listen to the sounds—birds, the wind, perhaps water as it trickles through a fountain. Definitely a great place to get away from the noise.
But I also like to have a look to see who’s there.
This probably started in my home town on the east coast. There’s a cemetery on the village green where there are people buried who were born in the 1500’s! Whoever heard of such a thing?
Later, I had the chance to visit Europe where there are graves and markers much, much older than that. There are big buildings (mostly churches, but other places too) in London and Paris and Rome where many famous people have been laid to rest. People make pilgrimages to see some of the tombs. And I’ll admit it, I’ve done that too…but that’s not the same as being in a cemetery.
Some cemeteries are massive, like the ones in Queens, just outside of Manhattan that seem to go on for miles. Acres and acres of tightly packed plots running along the expressway, clearly on the landing path for one of the nearby airports—not a very quiet spot, and confusing if you don’t know your way around.
I’ve only gone a few steps into one of those cemeteries once, and wondered how a person would even find someone’s final resting place in a place that huge, but I guess if you’ve been there before and you know what you’re looking for, it’s probably as simple as finding a house you visit often or specific space in a park—you just know where it is.
In Paris, in the late 1700’s, the city’s cemeteries became so overcrowded, six million sets of bones were moved into underground caves created by the mining of the limestone that sits under the city. Today the catacombs are a tourist attraction, and sometimes it worries me that the value of the real estate of these big New York burial grounds–along with others that are maybe not as large but are sitting on prime land–might result in the same sort of planning exercise. How disturbing that would be.
Bottom line is that when I do go walking in cemeteries and burial grounds, I don’t usually stop to look at the gravestones; it seems kind of disrespectful or presumptuous for some reason to walk off the path and into an aisle to read someone’s epitaph and life’s information.
Although you miss some pretty interesting stuff if you don’t take a few minutes to look around.
Like the title of today’s essay. He honored the cabbage. On a random gravestone. What does that even mean? I googled it to see if there was some sort of secret meaning behind the phrase. There isn’t.
She did what she could. What about that one? Was she unwell, or did she have a dozen kids, or an unmanageable husband? What was her situation?
Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs for a .44…no Les, no more. In the Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone, Arizona. Pretty much sums it up. Some other guys you might have heard of are buried there too.
Sometimes it pays to stop and read the stones.
Down the street from my brother’s house, there’s a small, well-kept graveyard where a for-real American Revolutionary Minuteman is buried. Josiah Smith clearly survived the war, as he died in 1786
I’ve seen the place where George Armstrong Custer fell at the Little Big Horn, which is not technically where his grave is—I just found a site called Find a Grave, and it turns out he is buried at West Point..
About a month ago, I came across a monument to the people who died when TWA flight 800 went down in the Atlantic off
Long Island in 1996 (I know there are other memorials to Flight 800, so I was surprised to find this one tucked into a small local cemetery).
And just like that one, there are others, like the Imagine memorial in Central Park to honor John Lennon, and maybe one of the biggest, the September 11 memorial in New York; again, I’m sure that most of those who were killed are interred elsewhere, but it is nice to have a space to go to remember and reflect.
Which brings me to what I’ve been thinking about.
I just wrote my first last will (you know what I mean) last year (I know, I know—should have had one years ago), and I had to decide what I wanted to happen when I die (aside from leaving my prized headband collection to someone who will want them, as well as all my gold and doubloons).
I have opted to be cremated and to have my ashes scattered, some in the mountains and some at sea. And I don’t want a marker anywhere. So in effect, when I am gone, I will be gone—no trace, no tomb, no tracks.
It’s certainly a personal choice, but I think of how very infrequently I visit my own father’s grave (and how sad it makes me to see the unkempt grounds where his ashes are buried)…and I’ve never seen my grandparents that I can recall; in fact, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure where some of them are buried.
And I bet a lot of other people have been moving in this same direction.
But think about what that means…it’s not so much about being able to physically find the place where a person has been buried—it’s more about the memory of what they have done in their lives, whether it’s paying tribute to a vegetable or making us laugh or getting us to stop and think about how they–or the way they died–changed the world.
I’m not changing my mind about what happens to me. It’s just occurred to me that, while it may take a long time, the idea of the traditional burial ground may be slowly changing. We may need to think about how we will remember those who have left us and how they contributed to us personally.
Maybe I’m wrong, but just in case I’m not, I think I’ll continue to take my walks in these quiet places. But now I may just think a little more closely about who’s there.