The Light Touch / Resting in peace: the lure of cemeteries
Published 11:42 am, Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I hang out in cemeteries. Morbid perhaps, yet for those who seek tranquility there's no place like it. You are either a person who grasps that concept or you retreat from it.
Having always harbored a fascination for spots off the beaten path, a cemetery provides seclusion from the familiar -- an alternative from the cacophonous roar of life that exists, not only externally, but in the dark recesses of cluttered minds. Sitting among the granite headstones, quietude takes hold as a part of history connecting past with present puts the life-cycle into perspective.
There is a wives' tale emanating from childhood where I was warned to never look directly at a cemetery, but avert my gaze away from the rows of plots for fear the Evil Eye might cause a rift in the rhythm of life as I knew it. This piqued my interest even more. Riding in my parent's car aroused in me a sense of illicit excitement that lurked in the dark side of my imagination as I dared to sneak a peek at Greenwood Hills Cemetery whose inferred message was: "Do Not Trespass."
But trespass I did, the first time with my best friend, Jane, with whom on a late autumn afternoon we packed sandwiches and biked the five miles to this sacred spot sequestered in a bucolic setting ripe for exploration.
It was here I first discovered the allure of solitude -- a place where the flurries of my adolescent torments ceased, as if I had entered a still photograph frozen in time. Our bikes steadied against a tree, we settled in, devouring our peanut butter sandwiches, famished from the long ride, mostly uphill.
On similar afternoons that followed I came to understand these silent worlds far removed from the one I inhabited daily. Among the weeping willows, and isolated brooks where wild geese languished, and nearby magnolias dripped their perfumed blossom, we joined the departed residents, who had passed on long before we were born. Their names are still as blurred as my memories, but their invisible presence resonates still. Caught up in their imaginary life stories concocted at age fourteen, we pondered the mysterious phenomenon of life and death, sharing secrets that fell on the deaf ears of those who lay beneath us.
These early cemetery excursions continued for me, and held an inexplicable appeal. Becoming a regular visitor has since taken me to places with names as diverse and melodic as those of my youth: Cedar Cove, Pleasant Valley, Pine Grove, Elmwood, River View, Willowbrook -- that sound more like spa getaways than final resting places. I have traveled to the outskirts of Paris, to Knightsbridge in London and small New England towns where cemeteries punctuated the landscape, adding local color to the already existing ambiance. I have known personally the tight tug of grief that only time can relinquish.
Not far off from my college campus I found a cemetery that provided escape from the toils of academia where I wrote papers and read the classics beside a lily-padded pond. The late-day shadows drifted across the stones as slivers of sunlight streamed through the tall elms. It was this cemetery's meanderings that paved the way from the protected world of childhood into my adulthood, and, on occasion when nostalgia beckons, it is here where I return.
Now, decades later, I am still drawn to cemeteries, but with older eyes seen through a less-distorted lens. A large chunk of my life behind me, these are no longer secret stomping grounds that were once fraught with eerie trepidation, but hallowed shrines in which to evaluate the evolvement of my own life -- its beginning and its ultimate closure.
On an autumn afternoon much like the day Jane and I wended our way to Greenwood Hills, I meet a dear friend at a cemetery halfway between Connecticut and Pennsylvania in the hidden environs of New Jersey. The smell of lingering summer is in the air as we spread a blanket and open a picnic basket that I have prepared. Cemeteries are, after all, grand refuges in which to enjoy, as the French do, le dejeuner sur l'herbe.
Looking down upon a long hill is a panoramic view of headstones reaching out toward a long dusty path leading to the main road. My friend cracks open a bottle of champagne in honor of those who came before us. We choose a name from a random footstone, raise a glass and toast one Cornelius J. Hamilton Sykes and his wife Rebecca, who died in the late eighteen hundreds. If they were with us now, I am certain they would make fine picnic guests.
I think of Jane living in Seattle. Certainly, she belongs here, too, and I wonder if cemeteries are still a part of her itinerary. Opening the picnic basket, something stirs in the brush beyond us: is it a chipmunk -- a daily visitor to these parts -- a loose branch, or the rustle of the first autumn leaves? I can't be sure.
Amidst my companion's chatter, the tires of a random car in the far distance and the pop of the champagne cork, my mind wanders. My senses are stirred as the subtle presence of ghosts of the past surround us. My friend assures me the sounds I hear are those of a bird flying from its nest high above us. But, she is not a regular traveler to these parts, and doesn't understand the nuances of cemeteries or the magic that lurks within.
I am lost in reverie. If I allow my fancies to take flight, I am almost convinced, but not quite, that if I listen hard I can hear them: the dearly departed who dwell among us, welcoming us in to their granite splendor, and who now, having come full circle after years well-lived, rest in peace beneath the swaying trees.