Death takes up space in the modern world. Each decaying body, every pile of ashy remains is placed in a box or urn and is allotted a piece of earth. A plaque is engraved or a tombstone erected;
Here lies the body of
beloved mother, sister,
These keepsakes for the dead are preserved and can, with time, become strange tourist attractions. One only has to think of Père Lachaise, or Highgate. We travel the world and make pilgrimages to these sites of the dead. The graves are vast and anonymous. Even if you go to a cemetery to visit a loved one, it is rare you know everybody who is taking their eternal slumber next to Aunt Mildred. The impersonal nature of them can invoke fear, but also grant comfort. No one knows you there, and in any case, they’re dead. So it doesn’t matter if you snot-cry.
The problem of the dead taking up space is that there is not a lot of room left for the living. Japan offers a solution to this with skyscraper cemeteries: floors and floors of dead people shoved into the walls. Switzerland offers another solution: you’re allowed to be buried for twenty-five years. After that, your grave is dug up and with true Swiss efficiency and style, your eternal resting place is recycled. Another dead body moves in. The process begins again.
Sometimes people go against this deathly real estate market and decide to be scattered to the winds.
“Put me on the rose bush…”
“Throw me into the duck pond…”
“Take me to the sea and let me sleep with the fishes…”
Here the site of the eternal resting place is given the chance of a plural existence. It is at the same time, both a pond and a site of mourning. Similar to the tombstone above a grave, only those who know the significance will feel anything different when they walk by.
Not everybody has someone to remember them when they die. In the 1800s in England, paupers were thrown into mass graves. They would collect the bodies of those who died nameless or unwanted on the streets, and once a week they would throw them into a giant hole. A hole that they wouldn’t cover with too much dirt to make the repetition of the act easy. I guess if there were such a thing as the afterlife, at least you would have a lot of company?
Graveyards, respectable ones that were founded on good Christian faith were next to churches on hallowed ground in the centre of the city. If you were christened, didn’t kill yourself, and paid your tithes regularly, you were a shoo-in.
My family is part of a dying practice. We have a small family cemetery. It is wedged between two houses on a small dusty road. It is a place where I went often with my Father as a child and well into my teens and early adult years. I remember, at first, that the graveyard was an eerie place. Despite being one of the gang, I felt uncertain about the place. I had never actually met anyone buried there. My Grandfather died before I have any real memory of him and that is about as close as it gets. Regularly, I would go with my Father and we could clean the graves: wipe down the tombstones, polish the plaques, weed the ground, and place fresh flowers around. My Father always told me stories of the people he knew in life, and how they were related to me. He told me stories of his own Father, and stories of his childhood.
A family with young kids lived next door and I would often hear them playing in their backyard when we went to visit the cemetery. I always wondered if they were afraid, but they never seemed to show signs. I caught them spying on us once through a broken part of the fence. I actually think they were more worried by the people walking around the cemetery, picking weeds from in between the graves rather than actually being frightened of the dead.
There was a small-unmarked grave in our cemetery. I don’t remember anymore if my Father knew who was there or not, but it doesn’t really matter. Regardless of the nameless crumbled tombstone, my Father would stand in front of the grave every visit and he would hold my hand and say,
“It is important to remember them, even though we cannot know them.”
He always told me to never walk on the dead. And in our family cemetery, most of the graves were raised above the ground so that was pretty difficult. When I would ask him why, he constantly replied with,
“It’s a matter of respect.”
The graveyard became a link to a different world and to a family that stretched on before my eyes. Despite the fact that I could never meet them in life, I felt like I knew them anyway. Visiting the graves became a regular routine in my childhood. And whilst some might think it overly morbid, it was a time to reflect on life. While I did not always understanding the meaning of a grave, of death, of endlessness, it helped me realise that I was connected to something much bigger than I could understand. That a simple name could come so far. That there was still so much living to be done.