Thursday, June 7, 2012

Living and Dead

My family lives near a very large and beautiful historic cemetery.  Since I'm a native to the area, I know a lot about the place, about the famous locals buried there, about the various segregated areas and their histories, about the monuments and their symbolism.  I also know that it used to be a very popular place for families to come have picnics, to bring baskets and blankets and toys and spend the day.  This may be true about all large cemeteries, but i still find it fascinating considering our current culture's deep and abiding fear of death.  I've been asked if I think it is creepy to live so near a cemetery and truthfully, I don't.  They make good neighbors, the dead.  They're quiet, they don't change the landscape or have rude habits or put ugly things on the lawn.

That's a little flip, I know.  The truth is, I have a very mixed emotions about that cemetery.  While there are still occasional burials of Old Families, it is mostly full.  Many of the monuments and graves are from the turn of the last century.  My children, much like the picnicking families of old, think it is a great place to ride scooters and bikes.  The sidewalks are paved and wide, the hills roll gently and there is a lot to look at. 

When I go for runs through the cemetery, I turn off my music and pay attention to the graves and monuments that I pass.  Quick math in my head tells me the ages of the people that rest there, and I often connect those ages with people I know and love today.  That large angel covers a man my father's age, there's a civil war soldier younger than my cousin.  Like many parents I know, the tiny graves are the hardest to bear because they are so outside of what I wish were the "natural" order: we are born, we live long and meaningful lives, we die surrounded by great-grandchildren that adore us.  Despite my own theology of death as a part of our journey with God, I still get twisted and torn when I am confronted, either personally or professionally, with a parent burying her child.

In one part of the cemetery, there is a line of five little graves with one larger one at the end, from the 1920's.  They are five little children, born two to three years apart, none living long enough to meet his or her siblings.  The last one is their mother, who died a few days after her youngest child.  This line of graves is so poignant to me, speaking to first the frailty of the human body, which so often-- even in this world of advanced medical science-- cannot survive the trauma of human existence.  But more importantly it speaks to me of the strength of human hope.  Because that mother was so determined to raise a child that even the repeated devastating loss could not kill the hope that the next one might be healthy and strong.

And I add to that the image of my very strong, very healthy 5-year-old son, with his skinny arms and legs brown from the sun flying by this little line of graves on his bike.  He is the image of vitality.  He embodies life and possibility.  What does that mother think of my son, who has outlived-- in more ways than one-- every one of her precious children?  What does she think of me as I chase him on my bike, having never worried about more than a nosebleed in my children?  Is she jealous?  Is she relieved that she has risen above the necessity of worrying about loss?  Is she happy for all of the mothers that will die surrounded by grandchildren from their own healthy kids?

My kids, even my astute five-year-old son, have not yet begun to ask too much about the cemetery.  They know it is where we go to remember people who died when we miss them.  But soon, he will begin to be able to read some of the headstones: mother, father, sister, infant, and I know that the questions will come.  And they will hurt my heart to have to answer them.