Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dead Men Talking: Confessions of a Graveyard Tourist

 I say to you who are passing by,
As you are now, so once was I.
And as I am now, so you shall be.
Fear not death and follow me.
~ an epitaph

I'll confess something. I enjoy cemeteries. In my own region and whenever I travel, I seek out the dead. I am a graveyard tourist. 

No, I am not an adjunct member of the Addams Family. I am not a ghost hunter, nor some kind of weirdo necrophiliac. I seek out the dead because they have things to tell us. But most of us aren't listening. I am a writer. Writers need to keep their ears open to all, including those who are heartbeat challenged.

My fascination with cemeteries began when I was a boy. Our mother would take us to the cemetery where our kinsmen are buried to lay flowers at their graves and say a prayer, or two. Grandparents who passed before I was born. An aunt, aged 3, who died from a pot of boiling water spilling on her from my grandma's stove. A long lost great-grandfather whom no one had ever talked about, not even the old-timers, whose neglected grave I'd found on my own. Who was this guy? Why didn't anyone ever even mention his name? Was he a hanged horse thief? A pedophile? A murderer? He died in 1926. Nobody knows.

While my mother tended to the graves, I wandered around the cemetery, getting to know the residents -- old folks from the old countries, soldiers fallen in war, kids and babies-way too many. Over the years, I expanded my scope, exploring abandoned graveyards being taken over by nature, well tended small town cemeteries, isolated family plots and headstones on rural farms, laid before the advent of zoning; sprawling urban necropolises with huge family tombs and urn crypts; military cemeteries - including those of our erstwhile enemies; European cemeteries, where they empty the graves after thirty years to make room for the newly deceased; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Native American burial grounds. I've seen them all.

I am partial to Protestant burial places because of their laissez-faire policies on epitaphs. One can be as verbose as one wants in death, as opposed to Roman Catholics, who place a gag rule on the dead. While I find many of the ethnic cemeteries beautiful and serene, I usually don't know their languages. Hence, having no Hebrew, Welsh or Polish, I find myself unable to listen to many of the folks buried in those places. There is, in fact, a Welsh church and graveyard near where I live. What I can make out from all the consonants on the headstones is that most seemed to have hailed from south as opposed to north Wales. Native American burial grounds feature animals on many of the headstones. The further east one goes in North America, the older the graves. New England churchyards constitute a motherlode of historical insights. Most of the Confederate military cemeteries I've visited in the southern United States are lovingly cared for and rich with historical information. The saddest graves I've seen in that region are the many anonymous graves of unidentified soldiers and slaves. Imagine toiling as someone's property your entire life and then being denied even the small dignity of identity in death.