Just like this slide show, our life here is over in the blink of an eye:
This is a little reminder, that although we go on and on, and on, in this lifetime we are not immortal! Like it or not, this is where we’ll all end up someday.
Graveyards such as these may slowly become a thing of the past, as resources dwindle. That’s why archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, historical societies and things like Gravestone Studies are so important. We have a lot to learn from our past and we need to keep it in our sights as we look to the future. In this culture, we seem so quick to rid ourselves of last seasons fashions, or that old out-dated piece of 6 month old technology. I hope this is just a phase we are going through, but I think not. The anty has been upped.
Graveyards are one of many things that can teach us about those who were, and were not, part of a community, their socio-political-religious standing, as well as other external impacts such as warfare, natural disasters and epidemics. The grave art itself portrays the belief systems that were prevalent and valued at the time. My dad taught me this at a young age. He was of Irish heritage, had a love of history, and graveyards. Seemed like a natural fit. Every time we visited a new place, we headed to the local graveyard, because he said, that’s where you find the history, literally the heart and soul of a place. (So of course, how could my husband and I NOT go to Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, while we were there? I’m glad we did. It was one of the most lovely Homes of the Dearly Departed I have ever visited. I especially liked the moss dripping from the trees which gave it even more ambiance). I can see why many families used to, and some still do, picnic at graveyards. Many are peaceful, quiet, and in natural park-like settings where you can feel close to past, present, AND future. It wasn’t long into my life that my dad’s was cut short ( I was 8, he was 49). His death showed me that I must live life to the full. Strangely enough, my mom never took me to the graveyard to visit him…I didn’t do that till I was 40…
I don’t think honoring the dead will ever go out of fashion. Most of us want to remember those who’ve passed, either publicly or privately. (I know one family who sets a place at the table for the deceased one on his birthday). Every culture has their way — from the Americas and Europe, to Africa and Asia. For me, the following are the ones I’m most familiar with: The ancient Celts celebrated the Harvest Festival Samhain (sunset Oct. 1st – sunset Nov. 1st), sometimes thought of as a form of Paganism, and later linked to the Catholic All Saint’s Day (Nov. 1st) and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2nd). Samhain is still observed by modern day neo-Pagans. Latinos have been able to hold on to their traditions by keeping their Day of the Dead ceremonies (Nov. 1 & 2). Those ancient Celts and Latin Americans share a similar story, of pagan indigenous roots becoming entwined with the Catholic church, in most cases by forced conversion. Nowadays, it seems more because the Christians are the ones who continue to faithfully appear with resources that the impoverished need: love and attention in the form of education, healthcare, food/clothes/shelter…one would surely be tempted to convert after that. Regardless of the past, the present shows that the Halloween holiday has become the most universal amongst the others, celebrated worldwide on October 31st.
The morbid commonality that we all have besides death, is what to do with the body? There are of course numerous modes of when and how each loved-one should be sent on their way, driven primarily by the cultures, and subcultures, in which we live, or were raised. Tibetan Sky Burial is one of the most remarkably profound, and for obvious reasons hasn’t quite caught on in other locales. Cremation in the West, however, is gaining in popularity, likely due to the relative in-expense, as well as changing values. Environmentally conscious consumers have also found their way to deal with ground-bound alternatives. Then there are the folks that just want to take matters into their own hands (again, literally), for a more personalized and REAL experience of the death, and the natural transition that has occurred.
This reminds me of one of my favorite memories of such things, I say with all due respect. In 1994, sadly, a dear friend of mine died at home alone, suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes. She was discovered by her husband, who sat with her awhile before calling the Coroner, who later showed up and escorted her away. After the autopsy was completed, her husband arranged to pick her up from the morgue, himself, in his old relic of a truck. Of course he couldn’t do it alone, so he asked myself, and four other friends to go with him. When we arrived together in his pickup (three in the front and three in the back), the husband went in to sign some papers. The four other friends proceeded to take a corner and carry her out in the sturdy, but flammable, casket that was provided, while I walked alongside, with my hand over what I could see was the protrusion of her face beneath the sheath of cardboard. SO surreal. Her modest container was roped into the back of the pickup where myself and two others sat, seeing to it that she didn’t get too jostled around on our short, unceremonious trip to the funeral home. When we got there, we carried her into an inferno room on the outdoor edge of the building, then stepped out and left her husband in the room with the cremation director. Her husband wanted to be alone with her one last time as she was slid into the fires. We outside could hear is mournful cries. Being such, it seems strange that I would call this a favorite memory, but the reason why is that it was so authentic to what she would have wanted. It was so intimate and loving, with total material simplicity. She was a “hippie,” a very spiritual and loving person, like a mother to me really. She knew her treasure lay in Heaven, not on earth. She lived a simple inauspicious life, and so it was in death. RIP Sarah…
My other semi-direct experience of passing on was in Nepal. My companion and I were temple-touring, and came upon a cremation in progress, from across the river. We saw the family preparing the body, hoisting it atop the timbers, being lit on fire, and engulfed in flames, as we watched random limbs raise and stretch to the sky, aglow, while wailing, grieving women had to be held back. It was an amazing scene to witness, I felt honored and kind of like an inappropriate voyeur of a family’s grief. Again, it was very REAL and SURREAL; no hiding, no mistaking what was happening. I have no photos or notes in my possession from that trip we took, but I was lucky to find the following link on the internet. By simply googling “cremation Nepal,” the first link that came up was this beautifully moving video of a cremation ceremony at Pashupatinath. I was so pleased to find that it was the very place we had been. You can even see where we had once stood, on the rooftop of the red brick building across the river. It was at twilight. It is still a haunting vision in my head.
Though I didn’t know it as a young person, I think I was being groomed for a life of fascination towards personal and communal expression, psychology, spirituality, creativity, and the transference of culture and history. When I began studying at the Junior College, it wasn’t long before Alan Dundes caught my attention and I longed to enroll at UC Berkeley. That was not meant to be, but I am still really interested in the facet of anthropology called Folklore and Pop Culture Studies. Being that this is a Halloween post of sorts, I’m going to take us out with an iconic bit of pop culture: the King of Pop himself, a psychologically wounded and brilliant star. There was obvious metaphor within the man. Thriller was the video that started it all. I saw it when it aired for the first time in 1983, and to me it’s just as impressive as it was then.