There’s the joke about the cemetery. “How many people are dead in there?” The answer: “All of them.” Or, “People are dying to get in there.” It brought a smile to my lips the first time a ten-year-old told me. But after my son died, I was wondering why there are so many jokes about death and being dead. “We joke about what we fear,” Daniel’s pediatric oncologist at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hospital told me.
Well, I don’t fear the cemetery anymore. The movies and TV shows, especially around Halloween, like to depict the graveyard as a scary place with ghosts and goblins. For me, the graveyard is a place of peace. My children have named the one where four-year-old Daniel is buried Daniel’s Place. On cool autumn mornings I like to take a steaming cup of coffee and blanket and visit Daniel’s Place. Beside his marker I have created many poems about longing, laughter, memories, and hope. Beside his marker I have seen life through a misty, but realistic pair of eyes.
On his death date and birth date, we send up colorful helium balloons with attached messages. Often we add stickers of animated characters that he liked. We’ve eaten sweet slices of watermelon, spit the seeds as he used to, had picnics and played softball – all at the cemetery. For a few years after Daniel’s death, his father would go to Daniel’s Place every week to reflect while smoking a cigar. The cemetery is a part of our lives now. We’ve yet to see a goblin.
I travel to other places of rest. In New Bern, North Carolina, we took a trolley tour of the city and one of the stops was the cemetery. The stories of the Union and Confederate soldiers told by our guide were fascinating. But the words on the tombstones of children were what I remember the most. They used to write on the infant graves the exact age of the child who died – “Jeremy Hawthorne, infant son of Zachary and Millie Hawthorne, nine months, two weeks and three days old.”
In the nearby town of Hillsborough, my family and I took a walk through The Old Town Cemetery, by the Presbyterian Church. The city has deemed this place, constructed in 1757, a historical site. I’m sure one of the reasons is because fame has been buried here: the body of William Hooper, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
While that impresses me, I am more taken with the engraving on the creamy white tomb of a young woman. Someone chose to inscribe the following thoughtful words and within the whole cemetery there is no sentiment that compares:
Sacred to the memory of Mary Shaw
March 9, 1840
She needs no formal record of her virtues on this cold marble. They are deeply graven on the tablets of many warm and loving hearts, in which her memory is tenderly and sacredly cherished.
I wonder what kind of friend, parent or spouse this Mary was. Truly many must have loved her, been devoted to her, and agonized over her early death.
Beauty is written within the walls of cemeteries for beauty was lived on this earth. Graveyards are places of remembrances, love and warmth. Cemeteries are not scary… …unless we fear what others will say about us and place on our stones when we are six feet under – perhaps there lies the anxiety. Will I be remembered lovingly? Will anyone miss me? Will friends and family sacredly cherish who I was to them? What legacy have I left behind?
While no one has been perfect and surely we leave behind those who may not have understood why we did the things we did like own a pit bull or hang our laundry out to dry at 2 a.m., hopefully we aren’t so far despised that one would choose to have inscribed on our tomb the words on the grave of Gussie of Ocanto, Wisconsin: Here lies the body of a girl who died, Nobody mourned and nobody cried. How she lived and how she fared, Nobody knew and nobody cared.
We all get one chance here on this terrestrial ball. Cemeteries speak of that loudly, yet solemnly. Near Daniel’s stone is one of an infant who died only days after he was born. What kind of life did he have? What kind of impact? His epitaph proclaims for all who learn from the words on tombs – in this generation and for those that follow – “We’re so glad you came.” I imagine his parents devastated over the brevity of their son’s life and yet, at the same time, delighted to have known him.
I prefer to take my coffee to the cemeteries. I do learn from the dead. Gone are my days of being ruled by fear and trying to laugh the inevitable off. At the cemeteries I learn how I can best live with each day I am given. Now.
[Written by Alice J. Wisler in 2000]