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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Thoughts in a graveyard [20050112|13:12]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: thefounder
2005-01-12 15:44 (UTC)
something that particularly interested me about this post was that you talk of it all only in the sense of marking death, rather than marking life. after all, gravestones tend to have the date of birth of the deceased on them as well as the date of death. perhaps we are memorialising life rather than death.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 19:05 (UTC)
I guess I feel they're mostly marking death, with the intention of inspiring remembrance of a particular life, for the person's family members and friends. If we were only memorializing life, then why wait until a person dies to erect a monument to their life? Burial occurs within a short time after death, making graveyards and death inextricably intertwined. What you get out of a visit to a graveyard depends on your intentions, I suppose, but unless you're brought up completely outside the cultural context that allows you to instantly recognize a cemetery, you're going to end up spending some of your time there contemplating death as well as life.
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[User Picture]From: enterlinemedia
2005-01-12 17:16 (UTC)
Some interesting thoughts. I have coem to feel we should remember the good times of the ones that have passed on.

By the way, have you ever heard of the Highgate Vampire?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 18:31 (UTC)
No, I hadn't, but you inspired me to Google it. Lots of local lore and reported sightings, I see. I wonder how much of that has to do with the belief that Bram Stoker chose it as the setting for the vampire Lucy's resting place in Dracula?
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[User Picture]From: katyakoshka
2005-01-12 18:41 (UTC)
Unsurprisingly, we have similar perspectives on death and dying, I think. The upset and howling that came with Loki's death had as much to do with shock, disbelief, and a lack of preparedness for the event as the death itself.

With my father, while we were pretty tearful at the hospital when we made the decision... that night, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo with cervezas y margaritas. A wake, basically. That's the closest to a memorial that we had for him. He was cremated, too.

If you can't remember someone with laughter and tears... Sad, just sad.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 18:58 (UTC)
I think he (as in my cousin) probably remembers Pa with some joy, now. It's hard to tell. He isn't very verbally communicative, and when he's feeling something strongly, he tends to express it in a wordless way. This makes it difficult to know how to approach painful subjects with him, because he simply clams up. We don't see each other often. I've felt odd visiting him since we both became adults, because while silent understanding works with close friends, it doesn't necessarily function just because you're related if you don't have much contact. Anyway, I couldn't say whether or not he'll learned to laugh at grief. :-/
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-14 09:58 (UTC)
I find it interesting that Christians should want to put up markers that are specifically intended to remind visitors of their faith in God. Or is it to remind God that they were Christian? It strikes me as rather idolatrous. If God is omniscient and omnipresent, does he really need a signpost to find you after you're dead? :-P
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[User Picture]From: chibaraki
2005-01-12 19:43 (UTC)
Someday I will post about the elaborate funeral we had for a cat when I was a child. It was surreal.

Semi-off-topic... cemeteries sort of creep me out. On the one hand, I don't particularly think people are worrying about their bodies after they're dead. I'm not entirely sure what I think goes on after death, but whatever it is, I'm sure people have better things to do than fuss about their remains.

And yet, I hate walking around in cemeteries, because I end up walking on dead people. Buried dead people. Dead people under six feet of grass and dirt. But still. Walking on them seems rude.

Really, the idea of memorializing death was ruined for me the day I asked my mother why no one had those interesting tall headstones anymore, just flat things. She explained that because the big tall ones were more expensive, and that they made it difficult to mow the lawn.

When the relative ease of mowing the lawn motivates how we memorialize deceased loved ones, I'm afraid it's become too trivial for me. >.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 18:35 (UTC)
AHAHA. Well, they do still bury people in Highgate. There are some fairly new gravestones in the cemetery, and they're not flat either. A popular modern style is to take a large chunk of stone and carefully carve it to look like...a natural chunk of rock. o_O

People are so weird.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 18:25 (UTC)
Congratulations, you've successfully lowered the tone!
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[User Picture]From: sadira42
2005-01-12 20:27 (UTC)
I really like that custom, talking about the loved one and laughing and crying. That's the way to remember a life, not some kind of rock.
Besides, bodies take up all that valuable land...
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 18:25 (UTC)
Unlike chocolate. Never mind cremation, I want to be made into a tasty bar of chocolate.

Because...

EVERYONE loves the chocolate!
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-13 01:39 (UTC)

Hiho, from across the pond

Well, if it helps, I had little concrete idea of what I meant by my comment about memorializing death. As most things for me, it started as a feeling. I just suddenly got a sense of that place as an anchor, holding people to the past: a monument to loss and pain. Would we do better to let the moment of the death drift away with the rest of our days, rather than erecting a reminder that we drag beside us. Keep in mind that the day was overcast, cold, and bleak. Hence theme of death and pain. Perhaps on a sunny blue sky day, I would have felt the sense of a celebration of life a little stronger.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-13 18:29 (UTC)
It was absolutely freezing that day! That's the coldest it's been all winter. I agree that monuments to people I know tend to remind me primarily that they're gone. It's actually more difficult to remember a life when you're standing in front of a gravestone than it is simply at random times when memories come to you, I think.
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[User Picture]From: hunterxtc
2005-01-13 08:51 (UTC)
On the whole, I certainly don't want to have a funeral and burial and all that traditional stuff. But my life has been marked by these rituals... I can remember when an uncle of mine died, and he didn't have much money, and when they closed the cheap casket during the funeral, one of his daughters ran up to the front of the church and would not let them do it... it was one of those scenes that you see in a movie, but you never think you will see in real life.

People think I'm strange because I never go to "calling hours". What the hell are calling hours for? I know, they are for the friends of the dead to "pay their respects." And the family of the dead person are required to be there, to ... well, I don't know why. That is why I never was there for the "calling hours" when my father and mother died. I am not good at the whole "ohhh I'm so sorry about your loss" kinda thing (giving or receiving it) so I simply do not go. I just find the whole ritual incredibly worthless. But then, that's me.

I love walking in cemeteries, especially the old ones with all the ornate monuments... but no one seems to get those anymore, most cemeteries have those flat headstones so that the caretakers can cut the grass... there is a stone here in the North Canton cemetery for a guy who did a lot of traveling... it is a huge world globe, the size of a large boulder, and under it are the words "World Traveler"... but it doesn't say where he went, or what he did.. so it's basically just a large stone marker.

Most people's funerals are such a somber downer sorta thing... if I ever had one (which I will not) I would want people to have a merry old time, get drunk, play my favorite CDs, watch my favorite films, and perhaps think of me in the room laughing with them.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-14 14:39 (UTC)
I don't think I've ever heard of calling hours. That's bizarre. I've been to a few "memorial" gatherings, and those were...depressing. I wouldn't call them worthless, but when you get a bunch of people together who knew someone, they're generally reluctant to speak much besides the positive impressions of the person. Especially if I didn't know the person, I wind up coming away feeling like I know even less.

I like the idea of drunken memorial activities. My parents and I have done those for both my mother's parents now. :-)
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[User Picture]From: hunterxtc
2005-01-14 09:00 (UTC)
That is beautiful. Fucking beautiful.

After reading this, I had to go and see what your profile had to say about you... it's so strange, because right now I am wearing a University of Victoria T-shirt and I see that you are from there... now all the memories of riding a high speed catamaran from Seattle to Victoria and walking along the harbor and the clean clean downtown all come back to me. But I guess you folks get tired of the bloody tourists coming and going.
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