I wouldn’t necessarily say that cemeteries have always fascinated me. I think it might be more truthful to say that I never really gave cemeteries or graveyards all that much thought as a kid, except as something that occasionally showed up in cartoons with rattling skeletons dancing a crazy jig. Death itself was an abstract concept, and I certainly didn’t spend any time thinking about where we kept our dead.
What I did spend a great deal of time thinking about between the age of 6-9 was how to weasel out of my weekly Brownie meetings. My mother was on a mission to socialize shy little Sarah and had signed me up for everything from gymnastics to ballet– and as none of them stuck, we’d reached Brownies as a last resort. I hated it. It was just like the agonies of a school day– where girls separated into cliques, everyone had their own friends, and no one was friends with me– except to add insult to injury, the meetings took place after school, in what was supposed to be my free time. It was lonely, awkward, and miserable. Most of our gatherings occurred in the troupe leader’s basement where we did little crafts, ate snacks, and probably did something to earn badges, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what those things were. I was mostly in my own head, pretending I was somewhere else.
One afternoon we were shuttled over to a local cemetery. I don’t think I realized that’s where we were–again, zoned out and daydreaming when I should have been paying attention–but when we arrived and I saw the shadowy tree-lined paths winding past weathered gravestones, I recall feeling a vague sense of trepidation. After all, wasn’t the graveyard where all the spooky bad guys from Scooby Doo lived? It turned out that we were tasked with wandering around on our own, looking at nature, and making grave rubbings. When I learned what was expected of us, I couldn’t have been more thrilled; even at that age, I’d take alone time over group activities, any day!
That afternoon was one of the most peaceful I’d ever spent in my young life. I chose a crumbling grave marker with a garland of flowers carved into it, and as I rubbed with my grey chalk on tracing paper, I didn’t even get myself worked up, as I often did, dithering and fretting, worrying as to whether I was “doing it right” (a concern that plagued me constantly.) It was enough to be in solitude, lost in thought on a late autumn day while chipmunks chattered and acorns dropped at my feet, and my companions’ voices grew fainter and disappeared, the further everyone roamed. It was as if I had drifted into another world. I’d carry those feelings with me into adulthood and in the past several decades, I’ve often found myself seeking out the silence and stillness of a local cemetery when life feels overwhelming.
I realize that to those who know me through my writing or internet presence, my fondness for graveyard sojourns might seem to be connected to my inclination toward darkness and the macabre– but it’s not that at all. I don’t have a morbid obsession with death, it’s not some sort of goth predilection…it’s more like…as an introvert’s introvert, I know in my heart that the cemetery is probably the one place on earth I don’t have to feel anxious about talking to people! The quiet and solitude is such a balm for the soul and cemeteries themselves feel like a place outside of time, so the overall experience of spending time in a cemetery is not haunted or full of horrors at all, but rather a hushed, halcyon dream.
I thought of that formative afternoon as I began reading Death’s Garden, Revisited, a poignant, sweeping collection of personal essays accompanied by evocative, full-color photos, about the myriad, complex ways that people connect with cemeteries and graveyards.
I’ll confess, I felt a terrible sense of guilt and shame as I initially thumbed through these pages; Loren Rhoads, the creator of this project, had generously sent me a copy sometime late last spring, and it has taken me a very long time to read it. My vision has been deteriorating so badly–and at an essay a day, all my eyeballs can handle, that makes for slow reading. Not long into the book, though, I stopped feeling bad about myself, and, much like my experiences with cemeteries themselves, I totally lost myself in the worlds of emotions that these wonderful writings evoked.
I should also mention that being contacted by Loren or even being on her radar at all, was a bit of a dream come true. I’ve been low-key obsessed with this author, editor, and lecturer ever since Rue Morgue Magazine featured a brief review of Loren’s book Morbid Curiosity Sings the Blues all the way back in 2009!
Death’s Garden, Revisited is a gathering of tapophilic musings from all walks of life. Over the course of these pages, genealogists and geocachers, travelers and tour guides, academics and amateur sleuths explore, examine, and excavate the culture, zeitgeist, landscape, philosophy, and history of cemeteries, as well as the stories of the people, both infamous and obscure, buried there. Told from the perspectives of a thrillingly diverse group of voices from around the globe, these writings adeptly illustrate one of the included author’s observations that “once we escape from the bony grip of mortality, we find common ground.”
We read stories of joy and mirth: first dates, weddings, reunions, ghost tours! We also read of sadness and rage and things vile and unconscionable: vandalism, descration, racism, revolutions, murders. We read over and over, of the peace to be found at the end of all things. That despite their eerie and unsettling associations with ghosts and the supernatural, despite often being thought of as bleak, gloomy places, the taboo nature of their existence…well, as one writer declares, “That’s not scary, it’s family.”
Places of both beauty and sorrow, where the living and the dead come together, cemeteries offer glimpses into the past, and teach us about the history of a community. These are spaces that remind us of the enduring power of love and memory, and nudge us to reckon with our own mortality, reminding us of our own fragility and the brevity of life.
Though out of necessity I read this book at a snail’s pace, I think that might be the best way to take in these stories. As lovely and thought-provoking as each author’s contribution might be, reading about death is, after all, a pretty intense and heavy experience. “Grave” subject matter, if you’ll pardon the pun. I found myself either delicately weepy or hiccuping with unexpected sobs after sitting with quite a few of them. It’s a profoundly affecting, powerfully beautiful collection.
My life in the past few years, however, has not been moving at a snail’s pace. I myself have written three books. I’ve moved house, and gotten married. The elders in my family have died one after the other–my mother and all her siblings, both sets of my grandparents, and just a few months ago, my father. They have all been cremated; none of these folks are buried in a cemetery, and I have no one to visit there.
I’m not visiting these silent, sacred spaces for them, though, am I? As the song goes, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” Life has been overwhelming and a bit bonkers in recent years. It’s time to visit a soft, silent, sacred space where I’ll have more solitude than I can shake a stick at, and no matter how much talking I do into the metaphorical darkness… I won’t hear a peep in return.
If you would like to support this blog, consider buying the author a coffee?