January 12th, 2005

me: ooh!

Thoughts in a graveyard

sadira42 wrote a few thoughts about faith and death a couple of weeks ago. I was going to comment, but it got out of hand and turned into its own post.

When Claudine and I were in Highgate Cemetery, she stopped about halfway down a trampled leaf sodden path and said that she wasn't sure how she felt about memorializing death. I wasn't sure what she meant because she's sometimes hesitant to express herself in forceful terms. So I started talking about what I thought. I asked if she meant what was the point of putting up a memorial that in a hundred and fifty years would be overgrown with moss and ivy, knocked over by vandals and inaccessible even to the mildly curious visitors to whom the name on the stone meant nothing. She said kind of. I said I didn't think there was much point, really, but that's because I was brought up in a family that didn't believe tangible reminders of death were necessary in order to deal with grief. I also don't believe that there's anything left of a person after death than the corpse, and I'm perfectly happy with that. It allows me to concentrate on trying to achieve my goals during this life, while adhering to my personal moral code.

All of my closest relatives have been cremated without a funeral. We held a wake of sorts for my grandfather on the night that he died, but there was a cultural clash at it that will remain in my mind long after the reminiscences we discussed are forgotten. My cousin bawled like a baby throughout the agonizing process of deciding to invoke my grandfather's living will. It was his only expression of grief, and he clearly thought it the only appropriate one. My father, on the other hand, never shed a public tear. Instead he lit candles in the living room where we had dispiritedly attempted to eat, and started telling stories about Pa. Mostly funny stories. In spite of ourselves, we – my aunt, Marco, mom and I – joined in. We even laughed a few times. Short, muted laughter, but still enough to lighten our hearts a little. My cousin sat in Pa's chair and glowered at the floor. I suspect he didn't think we were behaving correctly. He didn't think that my dad grieved. I know that there are many ways that people deal with death, and, ironically, I was a little angry with him for being intolerant. I can't help it. I probably always will be. In any case, I don't feel I need a marker to visit to keep my grandfather in my heart or to help me deal with my sadness at the loss of his physical presence, just as I didn't need to shed buckets of tears in order to express pain.

I can understand, intellectually if not emotionally, why people might need to have a place to mourn in. I have never found that grief crept up on me at the required time when I have visited my maternal grandmother's grave. Possibly this is because I never knew her. However, I don't know why this shouldn't hold true for any person after they have been dead for fifty or a hundred years. Even the famous people. Karl Marx's head looms over a bend in the paved path in Highgate Cemetery, but it evokes little personal sentiment in me. The only things that do in any cemetery are the grave markers themselves, and those are abstractions. I love whatever spirit of vanity of either the dead person or their living relatives provokes them into putting up angels, crosses, draped urns, broken columns. I don't need them to remember or mourn my grandparents. I think of them every day anyway. While I can't begrudge the sentiment that drives some humans to erect individual monuments to death, I think it's inevitable that the personal meaning will be lost before the carven names erode away.