Taking daily strolls in the cemetery, because it’s the closest thing to me that resembles a park, has become a pastime of sorts during this quarantine.
In some ways, it’s more sacred to me than stepping into a house of worship. The names and numbers and epitaphs tell so many stories, while simultaneously leaving much to the imagination.
“Mother,” “Father,” “Husband,” “Son.” It’s interesting that throughout the last century, when someone died, we were so prone to tell their story of kinship more than any other story of who they were. We were and are married to the notion that who and how you loved is what your grave should convey.
Seven miles from Manhattan, literally as the crow flies, and you’d think there’d be markers indicating what all these assuredly career-driven saps were up to day-in and day-out, but in the end, there are no “Day-Trader” or “Journalist” or “Banker” epitaphs: it’s relationship–and nothing else–that tells the story.
It’s an odd thing, a tombstone, when you really think about it. We’ve decided somewhere along the line that the one hard evidence we want the world to have in our absence is, very simply, our name, our date of birth, our date of death, and maybe a one-word descriptor that does literally no justice to the complicated lives we were trying to live out.
A funeral, a tombstone, a story, and it’s ultimately all about legacy and all about being remembered, as if to say, “All that matters is that, yes, that was my name carved into that rock, those were my dates, I did in fact exist.”
It’s interesting, fascinating even, coming across the different stones, gleaning as much as you can from them. “Here lies Liza Mae Gufferson, whose stone is so moss-covered, it’s obviously her relatives are all dead or have no money to keep her last legacy to the world pressure-washed.”
Or, “Here lies John Jacobson, white dude who didn’t dare place his body in the ground but in this tiny little cryptic mausoleum that screams, ‘I had enough money to build myself a little house among your tiny stones and made it so no one would ever enter or leave for all of eternity.'”
And I should know: I tried to open one of the little doors to one of those things, and it just opens to more granite, but with little handles like a drawer in a morgue that’s been sealed shut.
I passed by one grave that had a granite bench next to it and thought, “Wow, that guy had it figured out, turning his death into a kind of utilitarian welcome sign: ‘Sit here with me for a while and think about how awesome I was.'”
Then, of course, there’s a matter of the dates and what they do and don’t tell you.
I couldn’t shake, every time I saw 1918, wondering if the influenza was what did them in and just thinking that person there in that grave had a better sense of this moment we’re facing right now than anybody else in the cemetery. Ida Flores sure is social distancing now.
And when you see a birth date next to a death date, it just oversimplifies everything so much. It puts life on this neat little timeline, as though it’s this Point A to Point Z experience, and as much as the Western mindset has nearly trained us to think linearly about our world, I’m just not so sure I buy the premise.
There are some people for whom the date of their deaths was the beginning of their legacy, even though it wasn’t the beginning of their story, be it that their art was suddenly discovered or that the way they died somehow shifted world events. I saw a grave today from 9/11. I couldn’t tell you anything else about that grave.
There is also the matter of time and how it isn’t accurately portrayed by any dates. A grandmother with Alzheimer’s might have been said to have died some ten years before the date written on the stone. A prisoner may feel his tombstone should have been dated to the moment he committed his cardinal sin. Even those of us who live relatively normal lives, if such a thing could even be conceived, are probably guided less by any starting point or end point and more by the most painful and the most beautiful memories that have carved their time into our essence and self-understanding of what our life is.
To put that another way, when we spend so much of our lives reliving particular moments of our childhood or young adulthood, those moments in a way become our Point A and our Point Z, arguably much more than the first and last breath, and for a lot of us, we run a real risk of living out a kind of Groundhog Day scenario if we aren’t careful. But that’s, of course, not to say we don’t have other crucial moments that slip in. I just don’t buy the premise that life can or should be dwindled down to a clock.
This afternoon when I hiked to the top of a small hill in the cemetery, there was a light mist covering everything, and with it, a smell I haven’t experienced since playing outside as a kid. Maybe that was a result of us all going inside and there being less pollution in the air. Maybe I just haven’t gone outside much since I was a kid.
But when I walked through the cemetery, all these thoughts surrounding me with the fresh air, the place was given a kind of gravitas to it. I felt haunted, not by ghosts and not by anything evil, but somehow spoken to and surrounded by the weight of some past and the whispers in the breeze that brought comfort as if humming a kind of natural chorus: “We lived, we survived, we died, we continue.”
I thought of my own grave. I thought of my many names–nicknames, and some kinder than others; I thought of my summer birthday, or the month later when I was adopted; I thought of dates in my past that had felt like deaths, or maybe rebirths; I thought of silly and serious epitaphs like “Father to Cat,” “Genuine Badass,” and “Okay Blogger.”
I thought all these things there, getting soaked in the mist that was trying so hard to turn into rain but failing miserably at it. And no matter what the grave said or didn’t say, I took a little more comfort in maybe how simple it was, how similar it was to all the rest, and as I looked at all the other graves, I thought, “I’m one of them, and they’re one of me, and this whole six-foot-under thing is just one of those things we do. We don’t have to define our legacy, rise above the rest, build a friggin’ mausoleum. We don’t have to write the greatest play or invent the greatest video game or find the cure to coronavirus. It’s actually just good enough to be a name on a marker with two dates and maybe a word of how fiercely you loved.”
And in seeing how normal all this weird death stuff is, I think I found something good enough in that mantra: we live, we survive, we die, we continue.