I love cemeteries.
They're a record of life. We often pass through existence with a small imprint on others. There are giants that go further that fill our history books. But in the cemeteries are markers expressing the fullness of life and the struggles and loves left behind, people gone but remembered through stone and wreaths.
I walk through three cemeteries on my trips around town. Therein is the town's history - the first settlers, the first mayor and bank owner, the mill owner, the families who gave their names to the town's streets and districts. The dates of the deceased reflects era - influenza and typhoid epidemics, wars, disasters, fires. Some families have several buried so young and closely spaced, you feel the family's loss radiating up through the grassy soil. Seeing those dates, I pause to imagine the lives lost and grief experienced, trying to hear the final words, see the final moments, trying to understand those ended lives.
Cemeteries and the dead have always fascinated me. I've not been afraid of them but being a story teller, I soon discovered that both terrify other people. When I was a young boy, Edgar Allen Poe inspired me and I created stories that terrified others about things I'd seen and heard while walking past or through cemeteries. The whisper of a voice...but no one was there. A woman in white, standing on a moss covered gray stone wall and yet, upon investigating, there was no wall or woman but a cold white mist layering the ground. I spoke of enormous black dogs guarding an open grave, growling at me when I tried to slip past them. Or borrowing from Poe, I whispered stories about hearing a heartbeat or a moaning and tracing the sound to a mausoleum where I heard the sounds of dragging chains and the feeble cries for help. I told of graves being dug up, of coffins found open and beating wings sizzling through the night, and being chased by poachers desperate to stop me from telling on them.
I learned to modulate my voice and speak softly, to carry forward the sense of terror and horror that I was supposed to have felt as I crept past markers where I thought I saw a man with a knife or a bloody young child. Nothing was sacred in my zeal to terrify others. I loved looking around and seeing them all wide eyed and still, staring, waiting, their breath held, some crying in fear.
People's fear of the dead and cemeteries puzzles me. I don't understand why they have terror. Many of the dead were once wonderful, living people and cemeteries are often beautiful and serene places. It's fascinating how we in America build and maintain green lawns and marbled buildings to house and honor the dead. The living stay so still within their confines, speaking softly, wary of awakening the dead. Perhaps they know something that I don't and my naivete saves me.
As I aged, I learned to listen more carefully to the graves. The tombstones and monuments say so little but the bodies within convey more. I hear efforts from when they lived to raise themselves up and live better lives, to explore new lands and create towns and nations. Singing and party laughter filter up through the ground. I see people dancing and painting, kissing and flirting, holding hands and smiling at one another, and, yes, writing in notebooks or typing, watching as life unfolds and refolds. I think of the small acreage and the tiny fraction of human achievement and existence that it represents, and all the words and memories stilled in those minds. I find energy in the graves knowing that I'm building on what others began, hoping others will build on what I leave behind, and I walk on, ready to build more, hoping others will come along and see my marker and hear my voice.
With that hope, I know that I'm more than a marker, more than a life. I'm a story told, a story waiting to be told, a life re-imagined, a mystery and a puzzle, a beginning and an end.
Causes Michael Seidel Supports
Kiva, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Propublica.org, Doctors Without Borders, GreaterGood.com