As Beautiful as Life

This morning on our walk down to the Black Dog for breakfast, Coco asked me a great question: "What's the coolest place you've ever visited?" I've been a lot of cool places in my life, so it was not an easy question to answer. Decidedly, one of the coolest is the graveyard in Talkeetna, Alaska. There is a memorial there for the climbers who have died on Denali and with the list of climbers' names is a quote by John Muir that I have always loved: "Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life."

I love cemeteries and am drawn to them wherever I go. I love reading the old names, I love gravestone art. I love the stories the stones tell. I feel quite fortunate, now, to be living in a house that is bordered on two sides by cemeteries.

One of my favorite things about living near a cemetery happens when people come to visit someone in the graveyard. I love how they drive very slowly, with a kind of reverence, obviously with the intention of going to be with the dead. I often wonder what they do or say, if anything, when they have found the stone they're seeking and spend time there. 

Everyone, of course, believes something different about the dead, and it's often reflected in the ways people either caretake or neglect the graves of their loved ones. There are some graves across the street that are heavily leaden with artifacts; shells, toys, coins. There are wind chimes and photographs. Some of the stones are very nicely landscaped, some have plastic flowers, though there is a sign at the entrance forbidding them. The latest trend in gravesite embellishment seems to be solar lights, which, in theory are a nice idea, but they make the place look like a mini fairground at night. I don't think that the dead need solar-powered lights and I know that the living neighbors of the dead most certainly do not. 

When I was young I imagined that living near a cemetery meant that your house would be haunted with all kinds of evil and mischievous spirits. It was a terrifying thought. As an adult who spends her days tending to the dying, I am intimately familiar with the many aspects of the human walk toward death. I have witnessed slow and steady and I have been present for quick and traumatic. I cannot say that one death is better than another; all death is hard. And all death is mysterious and contains beauty; I am no longer fearful of death or the dead.

I am, however, fearful of what the funeral service industry does to the dead.

Personally, I don't believe that it's good practice to take a dead body, empty its contents, fill it with toxic chemicals, place it in an airtight container and lower it into the earth. I'm not in favor of this kind of burial, but I understand the whys. I would like very much for us, as a culture, to educate ourselves more about the options we have when we die. For Vermonters, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, in Burlington, is a tremendous resource, with lots of links and helpful information. Many do not know that in Vermont families may care for their own dead including transporting the deceased, burial on private property, or cremation. No funeral home involvement is required in Vermont, nor is embalming required. It's good to know and to think about these things ahead of time. It's a beautiful blessing to discuss with friends and family what you might want to happen to you when you die, and to understand what your options are. Usually, in the grief and trauma of the moment, folks don't know what they have to do, and so are immediately at the mercy of a funeral home. I will preach this until I can no longer: talking about death isn't going to make it come sooner and not talking about death isn't going to make it go away. Talk until your lips fall off; invite death into your life. You may as well make room for death; she's not going to go away.

On the hill where I live and there is a large cemetery across the street and a smaller one to the south of the house. To the north there is a field. The dead, I'm sure, roam freely here; they are my neighbors and my friends. I knew some of the folks who are buried across the street and I sit with them from time to time. There is Deb, who was the secretary in Scott's office and one of my first friends when I came to Vermont in 1992. She died in her 40s of a rare form of cancer that presented in her leg. Near her is Matt, who died seven years ago when a tree limb fell on his truck. He was in his 50s, a deeply beloved father, husband and friend to many. Deck's is the last stone at the end of the walkway. He died about a year ago and his last words to me were, "If you say you're going to show up, then show up." I thank him frequently for that reminder. To the north is my old neighbor, Zoney Whalley. There are markers for people I know who haven't died yet, whose bodies will come to this hill one day. 

When I sit on my front porch in the evening, the sun begins its descent behind the hills that frame this valley. Wind moves the branches on the trees; birds of all kinds talk to one another. I can hear the traffic down on Route 30, sometimes. But mostly it's very peaceful. The dead do, indeed, make good neighbors. 

A cemetery is quite a thing. I like to imagine that the spirits are having a good time over there, maybe dancing or laughing; maybe just wandering around. I hope they know when we humans visit. I think they do. Keep coming, folks, the dead and I like having you on the hill, and it's an important and sacred pilgrimage we humans make, to the cemeteries in our towns. Amen.