Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thinking About Cemeteries

The other night in our EfM group we were doing spiritual autobiographies. One of the questions we asked each other was to name a sacred space, a holy place, that was special and why. Along with responses such as "in the mountains," "by the ocean or river", "places like the National Cathedral" there was one that sparked some conversation  -- cemeteries. Never having thought of it that way, it made me stop and think about the sacredness of places I'd visited over the course of my life but never recognized as holy.

I grew up in a large family of people much older than myself, so from my earliest memories, I recall the at least annual or biannual funerals in the family, complete with church services, trips to the cemetery for the interment, then back to the home of the deceased for what passed for a family reunion. The cemetery was a place visited from time to time, to the family cemetery much more often after Mama died, when we would go sometimes weekly, sometimes a little less often, to visit the grave and leave flowers or plant new ones or tidy up a bit. I would wander thorough the cemetery, a little family one next to a little Baptist church near where my adoptive father grew up. There were familiar names of aunts and uncles I had known in my lifetime and who were now together with others of the family who had died before my time. Some of them went back to the previous century, and their tombstones told more of their story than merely stating their names or dates of birth and death. Sometimes I would ask about who this or that person was, but often I just wandered, reading the headstones and following the line of virgin forest that marked the boundary of the cemetery. Not all the relatives ended up there, but enough of them did.

There was another cemetery that I visited often, the cemetery of the church in the little town in which I grew up. Like the family cemetery, the church stood at the edge of the graveyard and provided a context to the whole. This cemetery, however, was much older and a bit bigger. One of the graves belonged to a signer of the Declaration of Independence; he had a brick and mortar vault a bit above ground with a heavy stone lid that covered the vault. The inscription was long, giving information about his life and his family as well as the requisite dates, and so worn that the town had the inscription copied in bronze and attached to the lid so that even strangers could read and know the history of the man whose bones lay inside. There were all sorts and shapes of grave markers -- stone crosses, crooked carved slabs, more modern granite markers for husbands and wives, the occasional shape of a stone urn, and even a few carved animals and cherubs. It was a place that had a history and a feel of history that was palpable, but until the other night, I never really thought of it as a sacred space or holy  ground. A thin place, perhaps, but not the other two description.

There are several large cemeteries not many miles from where I sit right now. Most of them are like big parks with lush grass, occasional trees and flowering bushes, an occasional fountain and individual and identical flat little concrete bases with small brass plaques noting the name of the deceased, the years of birth and death. During the conversation that arose after class, the person who originally brought up the idea of cemeteries as sacred spaces remarked that their parklike-ness was often the only bit of nature that people had to visit in large cities. They were islands of calm and quiet and serenity in the midst of a concrete and steel ocean. As I thought about his description, it occurred to me that well, yes, that was one way of looking at it, and I could appreciate that viewpoint. I just couldn't share it totally.

The large cemeteries we have now are, in my opinion, show places. They seem more like warehouses for the dead than holy ground consecrated to the memory of and eternal rest of those interred there. They feel sterile, without character or even the charm of other, older, less uniform burial areas. They are nice to look at, but they aren't places where people's stories are told for passersby to read, note and, perhaps, pray for the deceased one. They are much like the housing developments we have now -- clusters of identical or nearly-identical size, shape, color, roofing, lot size and decor. It's hard to tell one house from another -- or one grave from another.

There are cemeteries back home that are little more than mass graves in clearings in the woods that are only marked by a large white cross and a sign noting that here lie X number of French or British or American soldiers from the Battle of Yorktown. That feels so much more sacred to me than the large and popular burial park close to downtown Phoenix. Even Arlington Cemetery, with its uniform grave markers, tell more about those who lie under the markers and who help to make it a very sacred space. It's odd. Perhaps it is more than uniformity (or lack thereof) and well-manicured grounds that make a cemetery a sacred space.

Perhaps it is the intent, the context of the cemetery that encourages it to be considered a sacred space. I only know that this is something I will need to sit with for a while, perhaps in the little Pioneer cemetery not far from here with the whitewashed vaults and stones, the murals on the walls that mark the boundary between it and the world of the living outside, and the dirt that surrounds each grave. It may not be as old, but somehow I think it will be a place where, dirt or not, I will feel I should take off my shoes before walking there.

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