We’re entering the season of cemeteries, autumn when the leaves turn brown and fall from the trees like so many souls giving up the ghost.
With Halloween, we’ll see a lot of comic graves on napkins, balloons and other party frills as well as in the spooky holiday decorations on homes. For more than 1,000 years, Halloween has been part of a three-day set of Christian holy days along with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. (Hallow is an archaic word for Saint.)
While All Saints’ Day was a time to honor those who had lived righteous lives, All Souls’ Day was a time to remember all who had died, particularly relatives and friends. As such it was a day when many families would go to cemeteries to visit the graves of loved ones.
Veterans Day (November 11) has also been a popular time to bring flowers and say prayers at the burial places of men and women who had served in the military.
A century ago, people felt fairly comfortable in graveyards, comfortable enough to bring a blanket and a food basket to have a bit of a picnic. Now, though, on most days, you won’t see many people in a cemetery.
I know. While cemeteries tend to creep out a lot of people, I’m the oddball who enjoys walking amid graves, mausoleums and tombs for the fun of it.
For me, one of the high points of a visit to Paris is a trip to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, a 211-year-old burial ground with some spectacular tombs. There are statues of mourning nymphs and brooding giants, and elegant bas reliefs of beautiful women, and images of grief in a panoply of artistic styles and sizes.
Interesting gravesite monuments can also be found throughout the Chicago region. At Graceland Cemetery, for instance, the burial place of the founder of the National League features a memorial in the shape of a huge baseball. At Rosehill Cemetery, you can find a life-size self-portrait in stone by 19th century sculptor Leonard Volk, showing him sitting very comfortably in a large chair with his floppy hat at his feet.
But, for me, visiting a cemetery isn’t just about searching out these distinctive, engaging and, at times, mysterious memorials.
When I’m in a cemetery, I really come face-to-face with the reality of my own death.
I know what you’re saying: “Duh!” Well, OK. But what I’m getting at isn’t just the intellectual recognition that death is on the horizon for all of us.
When I’m in a cemetery, I can’t get away with the usual evasions that serve me in everyday life. Death is there. I’m there. In a way, we share my walk through the graves.
This doesn’t make it any easier to accept the fact of death in my life and in everyone’s life. But, perhaps, by cozying up to death in these walks, I’m taking some of the terror away from the end.
Isolation and connection
Still, even more significant is how a visit to a cemetery links me to the billions of people who, throughout human history, have come before and passed on.
Each gravesite monument, whatever its form, has a name or at least stands for someone who had a name. And there they are, one right after the other. I see a memorial for someone named Mejia, near one for someone named Doyle, near one for someone named Kim.
Usually, there are the birth and death dates. These people lived. They breathed. They were joyful and angry, affectionate and in pain, filled with wonder and filled with dread. Like me.
There is much in life that isolates each of us. I’m not talking about the new handheld devices although they do their part. I’m talking about how most of us ride around alone in our cars. How many of us live alone in our homes.
I’m talking about getting onto an “L” train and sitting down in a car with 30 people and not trying to connect to all of them. I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to. In modern life, we are all so crowded together that we need our emotional space as well as our physical space.
The challenge of modern life is to find ways, to discover moments, when it is possible to make an emotional connection with someone else, whether a loved one or a friend or a passing acquaintance. Or a field of dead people?
I’m sure I look isolated when I’m walking through a cemetery. Yet, in an odd way, I’m not. I’ve got Mr. Mejia and Mrs. Doyle and Mr. Kim along with me, as well as the thousands of other men, women and children whose bones are moldering under the bright green grass on a sunny afternoon beneath the bluest of skies, as my heart beats thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump….
Patrick T. Reardon