Sunday, January 27, 2008

WALKING AMONG GRAVESTONES

Twilight and evening bell,
and after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
when I embark.
~Alfred Lord Tennyson


You may think it morose, but I take strange delight in walking among gravestones. In most European villages, you cannot help walk among gravestones if you visit any church building, as the churchyard is packed full of graves. Every trip into a rural European church building offers people an all encompassing reminder of their mortality.

In America, we prefer life and death to be served up on separate platters. Living in a culture that treats human death as the ultimate taboo, we hand over the bodies of our deceased loved ones to professional morticians in funeral homes who take care of all the unpleasant details surrounding our mortality. The dead are placed into expensive airtight, waterproof, metal caskets and lowered into machine dug graves in beautifully manicured lawns. Our cemeteries are often located far away from where people live, in the countryside, outside of town, where people must make special trips to honor the dead.

Then make a special trip. Take a drive. Visit the dead. There’s nothing morose about it. Give death a chance. Step out of the predictable world of the living. Step into the world of the dead. Walk among gravestones. Go sit on a granite tombstone. Ponder the names you see written there. Mr. Miller once sat where you sit, full of life and vitality, expecting to live and live and live a little more. Look at the dates, when he was born, when he died. Underneath your feet rests his bones. Listen. It is almost peaceful here. Feel the wind in the trees. Hear the birdsong. See the red and gold leaves catching rays of the setting sun scattered across the green lawn. Come back to this graveyard next week. Next week bring flowers. Clear off the dead leaves and weeds. Honor the memory of Mr. Miller and all those who have passed on before us in the grand processional of life and death.

In my wife’s homeland of Denmark, people make regular trips to the graveyard to honor the memory of the dead and tend to the grave plots of these family members. Each plot is surrounded by carefully trimmed hedges, beautifully landscaped and fussed over like little victory gardens. When the Danes visit the dead, there is a quiet but playful attitude present. Honor is given to the family members who died. Humor is give to death itself. As Danes stroll along the gravel paths, laughter bubbles up out of various clusters of people like some ancient spring of water.

I like walking among gravestones. I like the quietness, the green lawns contrasted with the dark tones of granite. In Danish graveyards, you find huge stones dug from the fields of the deceased love ones, now adorned with names and dates of the very people who tilled those fields. I do not tire of reading the names of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, lovers and friends. The human race parades across gravestones telling the old, old story. We all shall die. The wise sayings and ancient symbols point our souls beyond stone and grave to the unseen realm of eternity, singing the ever new story. We all shall rise and live again. St. Benedict, a monk from the 6th century, wrote, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” A Benedictine monk I know once told me to spend more time with elderly people. I asked him why. He told me that senior citizens would teach me how to die, and assured me I wouldn’t begin to live until I learned that lesson.

I live near the graveyard of the Pacific, the mouth of the Columbia River, where over 2000 ships have been wrecked over the years. As you stand upon the heights of Cape Disappointment on the Washington side of the river mouth, looking over this graveyard, you’ll find a plaque with the epitaph of English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the words of his poem, Crossing the Bar:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.



1 comment:

Robt. Ward said...

You need to come visit Cape Cod, David. We walk among our dead constantly. Much more European feel, graveyards everywhere. You've seen my shots of the Old Methodist Meeting House, standing as it does in a field of graves...

Lovely essay, well done!