a little on death

Americans these days are so far removed from death. We have no grave rituals, at least we used to leave flowers, now, if there even IS a place to visit, we hardly ever do.

Cemeteries are definitely important to the Taffs. Roadtrips growing up led us to many small towns, we’d come off the highway and Dad, driving, would sniff in one direction, then the other: “downtown’s right over there,” he’d say, “so the cemetery…” and we’d turn in the other direction and up a street here or there until sure enough, there was the city cemetery. I don’t remember any of the downtowns but we always got out at the cemetery.

Bayside Cem Ever since, graveyards have been a part of my life. I cried when I was kicked out of Oconee Hill Cemetery on the backside of Sanford Stadium for sketching. I was outraged, I did not believe a cemetery could be private property. That hadn’t stopped us from climbing over the stone wall in the middle of the night, though the tar on the other side later would.

Many of us today do think cemeteries are beautiful places, we tour them and have festivals, we jog through Oakland with our dogs if we are so lucky. A recent class trip to Oakland Cemetery, surveying a block of “Hogpen Corner,” has led me to renewed cemetery contemplation about our interactions with death. Oakland is a park these days, the graves are old and I, at least, know no one who knows anyone buried there. There is death, the beautiful representation of it, but it is far removed from me, I can absorb the beauty and none of the personal proximity of death.

Dad was cremated, but he would like to have a marker. In college his final project was on cemeteries, a box of photographs I’ve seen and should investigate further. I think the living need a place to visit the deceased, i think the deceased need a place to be remembered. Aunt Sherry wanted to be buried in nothing but a clean white sheet and pine box. What with modern ways, the best that could be done was locating a pine coffin for her, it was beautiful, it was a start.

I wish we were closer to death in our society, closer on a personal level, not just enjoying the beauty of the landscape but the solemnity, the reality, and sometimes the sadness of it. In Italy the graves are crammed in, mostly slabs of marble and headstone, packed in with the cemetery wall a mausoleum. They celebrate All Soul’s Day by parading through the cemetery. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead. I imagine Loreena McKinnit’s poignant “All Souls Night.” Cuba has the most shocking proximity to the dead that I’ve encountered by far, they remove the bones from the grave after 2 years (all the time it takes for flesh to decompose in the tropics apparently) and clean them (sometimes there is flesh left), replacing them in a receptacle, or a box on top of the tomb that is engraved with the person’s memorial, leaving the tomb free for the next family member. This is a festive time, when all who knew the deceased come out, wives and husbands, children, lovers, mistresses, and together clean the bones and celebrate the life of the deceased. In Japan I just learned they wash the grave when they come to pay their respects. In America? We might remember to put out fake flowers, if such is allowed in our eternal care pastures. But even that task is mostly left to the older generations—what about this generation, what will we do at the graves of our parents and grandparents?

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3 responses to “a little on death

  • billjings

    Yes, Absolutely, yes.

    Actually, the closest thing I have to draw from on this is… the book I’m reading, _The Stand_. Two characters in the book have to either accept or deny the burden of burying a loved one. The inability to physically pick up the dead body and cover it with earth is shown as a serious character flaw.

    Is that part of what a funeral is about? Not everyone can physically pick up the body and do right by it, but we can at least be there when the casket is lowered into the ground, or be there to pay our respects. The abstracted ceremony may be less painful, but…

    • e

      yes, funerals are good. i think funerals and the surrounding time (FOOD, company dropping by, staying a while) is a great ritual.

      back to the burying though, other thoughts these days the dead are whisked away, even our pets, if they die on the vet’s table they are bundled off for cremation and you never have to pick up the body, wrap it in towel and bury it. that said, i find viewing the body (prettified, “life-like”) at funeral homes disturbing and I prefer to keep my distance.

  • e

    on a related note, this Thursday the Atlanta History Center is having a “Party with Past” at Oakland, i wish i were in town!! check it out.
    http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/cms/Party+with+the+Past+/531.html

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