Monday, October 16, 2006

Grave impressions

More photos from the cemetery trip, including those of some of the graves mentioned below, can be viewed on my Photobucket Slideshow.

Are you afraid of death?

I used to be afraid of the experience of dying. Since I've had a family I'm still afraid, but more of their dying than I am of my own. Now, when I think of my own death, I think of it in terms of how it would affect my family, and I fear the not the pain of dying, but the pain of pending separation and the grief it would cause my loved ones. But still, that fear pales in comparison to the fear of losing one of them.

So on Saturday we visited a local cemetery. It's very old, with a rich and storied history, populated by the remains of fighting men from every conflict since the Revolutionary War, by generals, by sailors, by slaves, by politicians, by civic leaders. And by ordinary folk. And families. Whole families who entered the family plot over generations or - in some cases - within short days, months or years of each other during epidemics.

Larry and the kids and I were joined on our outing by our friends, Elizabeth and Johnathan and their children. Johnathan is also a photographer, and we'd been talking for some time about shooting some of the old headstones. We all started off together but soon Elizabeth and the kids and I broke away to visit the plots of families who had endured our worst fears - those plots where children lay.

Larry and Johnathan avoided the children's graves; Elizabeth later confided that they upset her husband so that he couldn't even bring himself to photograph them. Larry would only say they made him too sad. But Elizabeth and I were drawn to them and stood there, emitting silent condolences to the parents who had to wait many years before being laid to rest beside the children they'd lost.

One family plot held the remains of four children. Robert lived from 1834 to 1835. Eleven years later, in 1845, Edward was born, but died a year later. In 1850 came Caroline, who also lived but a year. All share a joint headstone. But the final child, Robbie, was with them longer. But not long enough. He lived nine years, and you can almost feel the lingering pain of his passing as you stand by his headstone. The top is carved with the image of a little dog and a riderless pony. Under his name are written the words, "Our last born. Our little pet."

As we stood before the plot - one of many such plots from that time period - Elizabeth and I pondered our good fortune to be living in the 21st century.

"All those wee babes," Elizabeth said. "You have to wonder how their mums went on."

But they did. And they did it without grief counselers, self-help books, anti-depressants and friends urging them to seek "closure." Somehow they endured. Somehow they faced every parents worst fear to go on.

We continued to walk through the cemetery - the late-afternoon sun throwing dapples of light over the weathered stones as our children ran and laughed among them. Why, we wondered, were we here now in a time when we could realistically believe our children will live to see adulthood? Why had fortune smiled on us? It couldn't have been because of anything we'd done.

Elizabeth, who is Irish, is deeply spiritual and one of the most loving and genuine people I've ever known. She and I share a rather broad view of God. We both believe we're here to teach and to learn and that our earthbound existence is just a temporary blip on an eternal journey of the soul. We wondered as we walked if the dead still lingered where they lay, or returned to host visitors to their final resting places. We certainly believed we felt something. Some plots - like the ones that held the Robbie and his three siblings - were surrounded by a strong aura of sadness and loss. Others felt light and peaceful. This feeling increased when our children came up to visit the stones. Could it be that the spirits enjoyed the company of children? It made us wonder. I'm still wondering. Perhaps what we felt was projection. Perhaps what we felt was real.

Now, dear readers, I didn't write this as a segue to some theological debate. Those have all been done, redone and will never end. And regardless of whether you believe in Something or Nothing, ultimately none of us will really know what happens in the afterlife - or if there even is one - until we die ourselves.

But something did happen as we left that deepened the mystery for me.

The cemetery gates close at dusk, but as we were driving out, something caught my eye in the newer section of the cemetery.

"Stop!," I implored Larry. "I want to see one more grave." There was just something about this one, something that beckoned me. Something that said, "LOOK!"

It was the grave of a 24-year-old man - a grave that had been lovingly tended, and recently, at that. A marble vase held cheery sunflowers. At the base of the vase sat a carved wooden angel, a rabbit, a seashell, and the wilted remains of a lily. Above his grave, a set of windchimes played the most peaceful and melodious notes I'd ever heard. I felt love at this grave. Love of the people who tended it and something else. The appreciation of someone who knows they're still alive in the hearts of their family. Appreciation, and perhaps a bit of pride.

"Wow. You were loved," I said to the young man. "You're still loved." I asked silent permission to take a few shots, not feeling a bit silly for doing so, and then just stood there for a moment, enjoying the sound of the chimes. But then, as I aimed my camera up for a shot of the chimes I noticed something odd. There branches and leaves were perfectly still. There was no breeze. The chimes were moving on their own.


Bobbb - Citizen of Earth said...

I love old graveyards
Sometimes they call out to me

On the tree farm where my dad lives there is a cemetary lost in the woods.

Not much to see

Just a few family graves from 1760 or so.
Foresaken so long ago that the forrest has grown up around them.

Grandpa found them when he bought the property back in 1920

he took the fallen headstones and made a place for them in the basement of the house.

The base stones were no longer able to hold them

One is a childs grave - he died at the age of 9 of scarlet fever.

Have you been reading my mind? - for I have thought about death three times this weekend...

I am not sure which I fear more, death, or continuing to live alone.

Bobbb - Citizen of Earth said...

Thanks for linking me up!

I'm not sure why that seems important to me - but it does

So Thanks

Morgan said...

Your blogs are awesome, bobb. I'm addicted to Zenspace. And your perspectives on Assorted Misgivings and Trepidations are thought-provoking. No need to thank me for linking you; I considered it a privilege.

Death...hmmm. I think maybe it's the time of the year. Everything is dying. The leaves are dying. My garden spiders are dying. Every day I find a new one suspended in its web, folded in on itself like a crumpled piece of paper. All things die, and we have to accept it. But that doesn't mean we have to like it.

We used to live on a piece of property that had a cemetery, too. It was also in the woods. I remember it being kind of spooky. The whole farm was staticky and unbalanced. I don't think the former inhabitants lived or died in peace.

I've thought about what you said, whether it's worse to die or to live alone. I think if I lost my family I'd likely less fearful of death, and would cling to the hope that to die would be to see them again. I think it would be very hard to be the last one in the family to die. *sigh*

Bobbb - Citizen of Earth said...

No need to thank me for linking you; I considered it a privilege.

Right back at you - verbatum

This place is Awesome too

Lord Omar said...

I absolutely love old cemeteries as well. The last we were in was just a few weeks ago at Annapolis Royal. The original English burial ground, and now part of the national historic site, was in use from 1710 to 1940! The French were burying them there 100 years before that. It is a fantastic place to visit day or night.

Death and dying?

I really have not had a fear of either all my life. Not as a child. Not as a teenager and certainly not as an adult. I believe growing up in an atheistic style household following the death of my father likely contributed to my non-fear outlook. At 6 years of age (and i mean just. My b`day is Oct25 and my father died Halloween) makes you very aware of serious death. Fast. And you learn quick because your world as your young life knew it has just turn upside down. But i digress...

I've always felt that I would probably die young and the thought never bothered me all that much.

Morgan said...

That Annapolis Royal cemetery sounds awesome, Lord Omar. I'll have to add to my growing list of places to see.

I've noted that - contrary to claims - atheists seem to obsess less over and fear death less than we believers. My theory is that because although we want to believe there's something beyond our current existence, we don't really completely buy the promise of an afterlife. In the case of fundamentalists, they often fear that deep down that if they don't do their faith "right" or misinterpret some part of doctrine they'll be greeted at the Pearly Gates by an angry angel whose flaming sword will bar the way.

Personally, I believe we go on and think my spirit is so strong that if I died right here and now, my soul would shoot right out the top of my head and just go on. Where, I don't know. I just think the force of life is like a stream that flows through and through time and space.

But I do hate the idea of leaving the life I love, and the ones I love. If there is an afterlife I hope there are more answers there than they are here, answers that will make me say, "Oh, so that's why..." to all the burning questions inside me right now.

Morgan said...

"I've always felt that I would probably die young and the thought never bothered me all that much."

It's interesting that you would say that. My Uncle Earl has always said he would die young, and has done everything humanly possible to make it happen. He's horribly overweight and is a chain smoker. But at nearly 60 he's still kicking, although it does seem his reckless lifestyle may finally be paying dividends.
I had this friend once - a Mormon - who'd gotten one of these things called "Patriarchal Blessings" that are supposed to be like promises from God revealed to the church elders or some such rot.
His said he'd live to be an old man. He died of a brain tumor. He was 37.
I wouldn't count on dying young, Lord Omar. May you live long and age as gracefully as your avatar. The current one, I mean. Not the Keith Richards one. ;-)

Roland said...

My wife's mom can only get two more chemo treatments and then...
She's had bone cancer for about 5 years now.
Hopefully there will be one more Christmas.

As fas as the windchimes, maybe you sneezed? ;)
(couldn't resist)

Think of the 24-year-olds grave site in another 50 years. Will his loved ones still be here to remember him?
Or will his grave become a place that is sad too?

Suspect said...

>So on Saturday we visited a local cemetery.


Morgan said...

"Think of the 24-year-olds grave site in another 50 years. Will his loved ones still be here to remember him?
Or will his grave become a place that is sad too?"

That's a good question Roland. I don't know. I do know that some of the older graves didn't "feel" as sad as some of the others. Again, I don't know if it was projection on the part of me and Elizabeth or if some lingering energy leaves a permanent impression on these places. If the latter is true, I still think in fifty years one would find Stuart's grave a calm and peaceful place.

No, I didn't sneeze. ;-) If I had it would have taken quite a big sneeze to make those chimes move for as long as they did.

Hope your MIL continues to recover, and enjoys more than just one more Christmas.

Morgan said...

Suspect, old cemeteries are very interesting places. I highly recommend them. They're full of history and wonderful stories. Some are macabre, some are sad, some are even funny.
This particular cemetery has the grave of a captain's daugher, a young girl who died on a seafaring voyage. To preserve the body, the crew it her to a chair and put it in a casket of rum. That's how she's buried, sitting in her little chair in casket of rum. I can think of any number of people I know who would have no problem spending eternity in a casket of rum.

CJ said...

More beautiful pictures. More beautiful writing. Thanks Morgan.
As a Christian I have some thoughts on death and the afterlife but respect your wish not to turn this into a discussion on religion. I'll just say I believe there's a Heaven.

Morgan said...

CJ, you can discuss what you want. I'm not trying to stifle debate, just pointing out that there will never be a clear winner.
Heaven...I've always been intrigued by that concept, especially when I consider that the Biblical description of heaven as a place with streets paved in gold seems more like my idea of a hell. A gold road? Maybe if you're a fan of Oz. But someone like me prefers grassy lanes.

Bobbb - Citizen of Earth said...

Heaven – even for me?

Though I’m not a big believer in the afterlife myself, I can still dream can’t I?

If your idea of heaven is a world of grassy lanes, pristine skies and warm gentle rain, a place to share your erotic writings with someone so special that you KNOW you are in heaven just because they are there with you…. Then I will be there, beliefs or no.

Please allow me to clone a like minded older sister from you to make this dream complete. I only need a few cells.

It would be pretty difficult to discuss death without religion coming up – so no worries there.
Where knowledge and understanding end – God takes over.
That is the way of things.

Ridiculous? Maybe
But beautiful none the less.

CJ said...

erotic writings? Did I miss something?

Morgan said...

CJ, yes. You seemed to have missed my profile, which lists erotic writing as one of my interests, as well as some earlier posts in which I talk about it. If you're curious, I suggest you read one of my favorite posts, "This is Porn." It's linked under "Noteworthy Posts."

As unseemly as it may appear, I have no problem with my naughty writing being available on select Web sites or between nondescript book covers. If I can make decent money writing the slap-and-tickle fantasies that are just languishing in my head anyway, I don't see any harm in it. These bills ain't gonna pay themselves, and no one's being forced to read anything they don't want.

Bobb,if you're serious about cloning me, I'm sure I can scrape off some skin cells or something. But I'd strongly advise you to reconsider. To some people, the idea of just one Morgan is almost too much to bear. Two of her would be unthinkable. ;-)

It does sound, though, like we have similar ideas of heaven. And you're right; we can hope.

Bobbb - Citizen of Earth said...

Ahhh but in heaven we can have all the Morgans we want can't we?

Well In MY dreams we can.

But I will throw in a random strand of DNA just to be on the safe side.

(I have someone in mind for my heaven anyway and oddly enough she calls her alter ego Mercy - but it is yet to be determined if this is going to be - so i'm hedging my bets for the afterlife)

CJ said...

You don't have to defend your writing Morgan. I like it that you're a naughty girl. I'm one of those open-minded Christian types. There's room for everybody.

Anonymous said...

Back in high school, I used to skip class and hang out with a nun who was, for some reason, buried just outside the boundaries of the "sanctified" ground of the cemetary. We got along; I always got the feeling she enjoyed our visits. She never told me her story, though, but I think she got a kick out of my many and adolescent speculations.
We should all make it a point to visit our dead. Just in case.