On Death

For some time now the boys have been interested in visiting a cemetery. I rather suspect this comes from some media exposure, but I can’t pinpoint an exact source — it might also be part of the normal childhood interest in death. I vaguely remember thinking on death myself when young: What did it mean? Where did people go? I had a vague awareness of something enormous and impossible which it was, thankfully, usually easy to ignore.

There is only one cemetery in the area with which I’m familiar, and as it turns out it is a historical cemetery as well as an active one, with graves dating from the late 1800’s. (Not impressive for those living almost anywhere else in the world, but for this area, that’s pretty old.) The appellation of “historical” assuaged some of the discomfort I’d felt about taking the kids there — we weren’t just popping into a cemetery to disrespectfully ogle graves, you see. This could, if necessary, be considered under the umbrella of homeschooling.

The cemetery is large, with a wide variety of stones. Some are older, elaborately carved, rough with age and lichen. Some families lie together (“Herbert,” “Charles,” “Alfred,” and “Mother” in one case that I noticed); I explained the concept of family plots to the boys. They were very interested, especially at first. “Wait, are we actually standing on dead people?” Nathan asked eagerly. They wanted to look at all the stones, and although they were not much interested in the dates, which all must have seemed equally distant to them, they were interested in picking out names and quotations. I read them bits of Robert Frost and bible verses. (The former, about two roads diverging in a wood, caused Ryan to ask me if the guy in the poem was lost.)

The older graves remind me that the terrible inevitability of death is followed by the terrible inevitability of being forgotten. Most of the time I am as oblivious to this fact as Mica, and I suspect it’s a good thing not to carry around the weight of impending mortality. But I do remember a sunny fall day after Mom died, and a walk I took with Nathan (just a baby!) on my back — the crisp autumn blue of the sky and the air filled with the smell of weeks of rain. The sidewalk was covered with the prints of fallen leaves — some clear and new, atop layers of older ones fading into suggestions. I remember thinking how similar our lives are to this: clearly imprinted while we’re alive, and then fading, none too slowly, to a vague outline in the memories of those left behind, until the last marks are worn away.

On the other hand, although the details of our lives become blurred beyond recognition, it isn’t at all correct to say that we disappear — at least so quickly. The influence I have on the people around me, especially my children, will leave traces after I’m gone. I suppose walking in a cemetery encourages me to think for a moment beyond the chores and errands of the day, about what it is I leave behind me in a broader sense.

Mica, who loves sitting on anything at the correct height for little baby legs, gave me a delighted smile from the steps of a mausoleum; the boys peered through the grating and listened to the echoes of their voices from inside. “I think there are people buried in the walls,” Nathan said in amazement. We talked about how I knew one grave was for a soldier, which led to a discussion of officer’s ranks that very quickly reached the limit of my knowledge; on another monument I pointed out the Star Of David and tried to explain what Judaism was. That conversation didn’t get very far — the boys needed to battle an invisible horde of zombies.

Their interest was clearly waning. I focused on portioning out the snack I’d brought and keeping Mica from stealing a perfectly baby-sized flag planted by the soldier.

On our way back out we walked through a newer section, with more modern, polished stones, and here Nathan was more interested in dates, particularly the current year and the year of his birth. He also wanted to nail down the terminology: the implications of gravestone vs. tombstone vs. headstone occupied us for some time, despite my professed ignorance. He is in some ways very sophisticated. On the other hand he didn’t seem to understand my amusement at a beautifully polished stone with “bite me” carved in small letters in one corner.

Nathan told me near the entrance that when I die he’d like to bury me in a graveyard near his house, so he could visit me. I told him we intended to be cremated, but that he would still be welcome to create a memorial stone if he liked, and he seemed to think that solution acceptable. I hear in that a child’s desire to be near his mother; hopefully by the time I die he’ll have long since become accustomed to managing for himself.

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