Dear Ancestor, the place you filled One hundred years ago Spreads out among the ones you left Who would have loved you so. I wonder if you lived and loved, I wonder if you knew That someday I would find this spot, And come to visit you.
I finally got around to emptying my flashcard of a couple of months worth of photos. Among the collection was a series of shots from my impromptu tour of Valley Cemetery during my recent visit to Manchester, NH. The word cemetery, I’ve learned is from the Greek κοιμητήριον , or sleeping place, apropos of the metaphor of death as sleep that’s as old as human history. There have apparently long been fine distinctions between cemeteries and graveyards, dividing the dead by class and status, much as they were in life. But nuances aside, I’ve always found both alluring; not in any macabre sense, but as places where a convergence of history, nature, art and reflection occur.
I’ve loved cemeteries since I was a child, which might seem rather at odds with my earlier mentioned youthful tendencies towards existential angst, or perhaps equally maudlin. But there it is. (I recently watched Harold and Maude for the first time, and thought it a wonderful film, if that explains anything.) And perhaps the recent passing of so many wonderful people, like my friend Helen, and iconic childhood figure Bill Haast , have made me a little more sentimental about our “sleeping places.”
The old cemetery at the historic Asbury Methodist Church in English Creek, NJ was my earliest haunt, so to speak. Living with an eclectic collection of elderly aunts, uncles, and cousins, we were frequent visitors to various departed relatives, whose graves we weeded and upon which we regularly placed fresh flowers. But I went there often enough on my own, biking along the winding country lanes, my heart always quickening as I rounded the turn into the church’s gravel driveway and saw the sturdy monuments beyond, where many of the names were family.
I would wander among the headstones, pondering the imponderable dates (to a ten year old) and thinking about babies born to die on the same day, their names long worn from their tiny markers, and wondering about the adventures of the ship captains laid beneath noble obelisks and the stories of whole families beneath my feet.
It was a peaceful place, with a mill stream running behind it and flocks of robins and starlings and well- worn deer paths. I could almost always count on being alone there, and almost always count on some good birding and nature watching. It seems we’re most efficiently “one with nature” when we die, for then, finally, the animals move among us unafraid. Deer bed down on our graves, birds flit among our headstones, and squirrels bury their nuts at our feet. (In recent years, Asbury installed a bat house – the most active and well used bat house I’ve ever seen.)
Early on I came to associate cemeteries as places of comfort, history and reflection. I think I also felt that by reading the names and deeds on the weathered granite, and touching the stones and monuments I was somehow keeping the dead relevant and remembered, telling them , in essence, “You’re still important. I know you were here. Someone today has acknowledged you.”
Over time, I came to include cemetery stops in our travels like some people tour lighthouses. I’ve wandered at length through Arlington, where my father-in-law is buried, not just at the standard stops, but along some of the more forgotten and less explored paths where timeless heroes lie buried. I love the old Alexandria, VA cemetery and Mt. Moriah Cemetery, in Deadwood, SD, where vast portions of the history of the American West played out, and I found the Manchester Valley cemetery just as fascinating and thought provoking.
Valley Cemetery comprises 20 acres in the industrial heart of Manchester, bordered by busy streets, the Verizon arena, and residential neighborhoods. It’s somewhat neglected and disheveled looking, hemmed in by rusty iron fence work, vandalized in places and functioning as a homeless campground in others, although I wandered the place unmolested and alone the day I was there. Like all grand old cemeteries though, Valley is also a work of art, a magnificent park, an arboretum and a history museum.
Newer cemeteries, with their flattened markers and endless lawns, often lack the artful elevations of the old graveyards. They just don’t give that sense of human shout-out that places like Asbury, Mt. Moriah and Valley do, that Hortonian-like “We were here!” tribute to human creativity and hope, with their overgrown grasses and wildflowers growing in abandon, with benches beneath big shady trees, and ornate mausoleums and noble monuments. These are places that inspire thought and reflection on life, as death should. Not all of the endeavors of history are worthy of immortalizing, of course. But all our human endeavors, however flawed, and at their messiest or their most beautiful, are simply human.
My friend Helen, on her “Jubilee Year” when she turned 75, wrote, “I used to be jealous when I saw older couples holding hands. Now I’m sad when they don’t! Because of the brevity of life, I find I cannot tolerate those who do not make the best of it, but hesitate to live fully in spite of setbacks and the intrusion of evil in our lives.
“… I now enter a period with less future than there is a past, so what’s really important dwindles down to just a few things: Honesty, empathy, integrity and love…most of all love.”
When I see these grand cemeteries with their big, quiet and nature-joined monuments to humanity, I can feel both the timeless stretch of the past, and a timeless tribute to the abounding love people have for each other, and for life,and which they want to make sure endures far beyond the days when they’re no longer able to lay flowers on the graves of those they loved, or to shout their own barbaric yawp over the rooftops.
For my part, I’ll continue to read aloud the names of dearly departed strangers from the marble headstones of their sleeping places whenever the opportunity presents itself, for they are each and every one of them our Ancestors, our comrades in life.
And sometimes the least we can do for each other is just remember we were here.