Friday, September 02, 2005

Maybe Macabre, Never Morbid

For years people have asked why I am interested in cemeteries. I don't know why I have never formulated a sufficient answer. It is probably because there is no single reason.

I've always been surrounded by death, but never in a morbid way. When I was growing up there was a lot of death in my family. It runs in the family. (Har-dee-har-har.)

My father is a minister and of course death and its aftermath were a part of his job. When I was in high school we lived in a tiny town where death was the only booming industry. I was like an unpaid professional mourner. It was unusual for a week to go by without one funeral. There were many, many weeks with two or three. When I wasn't being the preacher's kid, sitting with the kitchen ladies at the back of the church, I was hanging out with the florist's daughter. We would load flowers and drive like hell to beat the hearse from the church to the grave and arrange the flowers around the hole in the ground.

My dad always got some of his best stories and jokes during rides in the hearse with the funeral directors. None of these people or situations were disrespectful of death or of the grief of the family. They weren't quiet and mysterious about it either. These experiences gave me a freedom of mind to be able to appreciate what might otherwise be macabre and taboo.

When I was in Jr. High I lived in a town which was planned and plotted by a wack-o genius multi-millionaire. His mansion had been turned into the local funeral home. It was a wonderful old house and of course my dad knew the funeral director. We took some friends over there one night to tour the place. The director was gone and had left his new apprentice in charge. There were no bodies there at the time, of course. The apprentice greeted us and when Dad explained that we'd come to tour the house (this was a common practice in the town - honest - everybody did it at least once) he thought it should be a full-service affair. He showed us the house. The entire house. I learned all about embalming that night.

It wasn't weird, it wasn't gross. It was just a young guy who enjoyed his work and wanted to share his interests with other people. He was respectful, enthusiastic and damn-well informative.

I've never pulled the wings off of flies or been mean to animals. (Well, ok. There was that kid next door that used to hang out at our house and we pulled the stingers off the ants. Several times. I remember sitting on the edge of the bathroom sink, crying. My mom was doctoring my hands and knees and not for the first time. I remember her being a bit ticked and telling me to knock it off with the ants because she wasn't going to fix this particular self-inflicted boo-boo again.) I don't listen to death rock or wonder about suicide. I'd be a damn good funeral director but I don't want to learn embalming.

All of these experiences and others have taken some of the mystery of death away. That gives me freedom to go places and see things that I might otherwise fear. Cemeteries are mystical places for me. There is a heavy peace to them. Not heavy like a burden, but palpable. You can almost touch the calm. You can almost see the quiet. Cemeteries are contemplative places. They are the closest we come, in this part of the world, to the ruins of great cathedrals or monasteries or other such places.

And for me, navel gazing and contemplating always leads to some sort of irreverent wickedness. I began to see the odd and the funny in these places. I appreciate the beauty, I revel in the solitude, but I love the humor. Jackson and I may be the only ones who finds these things funny, but at least we entertain ourselves.

My step-daughter's mother died last week. As we drove into the cemetery after the funeral, Jackson sighed and said "I suspect we'll be coming here quite often from now on." I didn't say anything. Then he laughed and said "What am I worried about? You are the one person in the world who won't mind!"

If you have time, check out the link on the sidebar to the Afterlife. This photographer sees cemeteries the way I do. His pictures are incredible. Some of the effects are a little hokey, but some are really good. This is the music that plays in my head when I visit a cemetery.


annie said...

I am glad you explained your self.

But I have one question-- How in the Sam Hill do you pull the stingers off'n ants? That must be a mighty delicate operation!

Kathryn said...

Thanks Rach...that all makes good sense, and I absolutely relate to the sense of calm and history around an old cemetry,- though I do rather hate the modern ones with plastic flowers, windmills for babies, and identical marble headstones. When my parents died (I was 18 at the time)I rather confused the stone mason at the funeral director's by asking if I could have a stone for them that would weather quickly and attract moss and lichen. He just didn't get it: as far as he was concerned, the point of a stone was to be shiney bright and new for as long as possible, while I wanted that sense of people coming and going, the present slipping gently into history...There are some fabulous Victorian cemetries in the cities here: those in modern use tend to be less inspiring, and I can't imagine they will ever hold the same attraction for future explorers.

reverendmother said...

This was an exquisite post. Thank you.

We have been given the luxury to be very insulated from death in the modern age. It is a luxury we really can't afford. We want everything orderly and sanitized, but we miss some basic humanity in the process.

Janet said...

Glad you accepted the challenge to explore your interests. Your having an acceptance for life as it is, a keen eye for a photo-op, a well tuned sense of humor, plus always being up for an adventure (aka run-amok)are just a few things that make you a friend attracted by many. Love your blog friends they are equally as interesting and upbeat.

Lorna said...

thank you for sharing this. I have a memory of when I was about 7 - sitting in a cemetary with my Dad. He wasn't a Christian, but we found God's peace.

Here in Finland they are rather picky about what stone you choose. My friend's baby died and they did permit them to put a simple (huge) stone from their garden, but were rather puzzled as to why they wouldn't have wanted a shiny stone. As Kathryn said it just wasn't appealing.

Princess of Everything (and then some) said...

I like this interest that you have. Because of it, I have learned many things from you. I am glad that you will be able to have the world's greatest step child through this part of her journey.

Purechristianithink said...

I've always found cemetaries fascinting and peaceful. The first church I served had a huge, old graveyard with some gravestones dated in the 1600s. It always helped keep things in perspective for me--I was just one very small piece of the story of that place so I shouldn't over stress about "getting things right".

peripateticpolarbear said...

This is a cool post, and I cannot believe that as a child it was your job to "beat" the hearse to the cemetary. That's really kind of cool when you think about it. It pretty much guarantees that you're going to be either really cool or really wierd when you grow up. Luckily you landed the former.

halloweenlover said...

I'm sorry to hear about your stepdaughter's mother, that must be hard on your family. I hope she is doing okay.

I did chuckle at the image of you beating the hearse to the cemetary. I think it would make for a good understanding of death, though.

The Lovely Wife said...

I too like cemetaries. I have always loved the calm and the older the cemetary the better. They don't make headstones like they used too. I love how in some of the older cemetaries you can find headstones with pictures of the deceased. Or some of the ornate stone carvings.
Anyway thanks for your blog.