I hate cemeteries so whenever possible, I avoid them. There are members of my family who find this avoidance an act of coldness or even disrespect. I’ve seen the blank looks on their faces when I tell them I have no desire to return after the funeral. I really don’t see the point once the deceased are laid to rest. I think some of it is a generational thing and for some, it’s a very important part of remembrance. For me though, I go to the funeral and pay my respects and offer my support to the family, as it should be, but once it’s over, I let them rest in peace.
A lot of my hesitation I realize is because it offers almost no comfort for me to stand over a stone and reminisce or reflect. At the most basic level, I don’t believe the deceased actually know I’m there. I mean, they’re dead. I’m also not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do when I get there. Stand? Sit? Talk to myself? Talk to them? It just feels a bit awkward.
I also don’t believe in a higher power of any kind, other than the Universe itself. We come from and are made up of some of the very same elements. If you’ve ever studied science in school you’ll remember almost all of our physical mass consists of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Not surprisingly our Sun is mostly made up of these same elements. And when we die? These elements and others don’t just disappear but simply go elsewhere in the Universe. The Universe, even without us here, has operated this way for the past 13.7 billion years and it won’t change anytime soon. It’s recycling on an unimaginable scale.
I should add, however, that I don’t find cemeteries to be completely pointless. I did find a $20 bill on a gravestone once; that was pretty cool. I was young so $20 was a big deal. I didn’t actually know the person and I’m sure it wasn’t intended for me but $20 is $20, so I took it. I like to imagine there was a man standing over the grave, a cigarette in his hand talking to his lifelong friend, “you know something, Tony?” Taking a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaling slowly, “You could be a real son of a bitch. You know that though, don’t you?” And then he looks around, a little self-conscious, and continues, “But I loved you man. Like a brother. Listen, next round is on me pal. Make it a good one.” And he throws the $20 bill down on the stone, flicks his cigarette to the ground and walks away, head down and a tear in his eye. Or maybe someone just randomly lost a $20 bill…I prefer my version though.
So what do I think is most important in honoring the deceased and making sure their lives aren’t just forgotten? I’m sure we all have our own way of remembering loved ones after they’re gone but since this is my blog, I’ll share a few thoughts of my own.
I’ve experienced several deaths so far in my life. I will undoubtedly experience many more as I get older. It’s just simple math, unfortunately. My first real upfront and personal experience with death was when I watched my best friend and roommate collapse in front of me from a rare heart condition. I was 18, he was 20. I haven’t been back to the cemetery in probably 30 years. My grandparents on my dad’s side have also passed away and more recently my mom, who finally lost the fight, as so many do, to an aggressive form of cancer. Since the day of her burial, I haven’t returned.
None of that matters to me though and I don’t have any guilt admitting it. That’s because what I find so much more meaningful and powerful are my own memories and how they pop into my head on a daily, if not hourly, basis. And none of that has anything to do with my physical proximity to the deceased. It can happen anywhere and it can happen at any time. That’s the beauty of it and that’s the power of it.
When I think back on family and friends who are no longer here, I have an almost unlimited trove of experiences to pull from. When I was really young I would stay all night at my grandma’s house and really what kid wouldn’t want a sleepover at grandma’s house? There was Hawaiian Punch, bags of orange circus peanuts, Pringles, and always cookies in the old bread box she kept on the kitchen counter for as long as I could ever remember.
Even though she passed away 15 years ago, I still remember waking up on Saturday mornings after a sleepover to the smell of breakfast, which a lot of times meant bacon, eggs and biscuits and gravy. My favorite. I’ll also never forget how she used to come in from outside in the winter, cold and shivering, and stand on the vent to get warm. Or the smell of the basement in her house and the challenging, winding stairs to get there, getting much harder to navigate as I got older and my feet got bigger. I remember, too, how she used to give me a quarter for my stupid bird drawings, almost always cardinals for some reason. An artist I was not and am not. Then there were the summer nights with the June bugs and moths and how she would tell me that, “once the lights go out the bugs will die.” Kids will believe anything, especially this one.
My best friend in high school died 32 years ago in June. I remember the party we had on the very first night in our new apartment when I was barely 18. Thinking back, I’m shocked we didn’t get evicted the next day. There were far too many people for the small space, the music was way too loud for an apartment with such thin walls, and all of it went on for way too long, the last guest leaving shortly before the sun came up. It was legendary in every sense. My best friend would die 3 weeks later right in front of me after a softball game. Looking back though, we sent him out in style!
There are the literally hundreds of memories of my mom, growing up with my brother in that small 2 bedroom house on Draper Street. I remember lying in bed by the window and being so hot I couldn’t sleep. Or that time me and my brother got in one of our many fights and broke the window in the back door. Once the cuts on my arm were taped up and things calmed down, she took us out for pizza, and all was forgiven even between brothers.
There was the one time I walked home from school with an arm full of books and papers (yes, in the snow) and was so frustrated and annoyed when I finally got there that I threw them all in the front yard, papers flying everywhere. I came inside and she sent me right back out to pick them all up. And there were the dozens of times I was sick and she would come in to take my temperature and make sure I took my meds, sometimes putting an ice pack on my throbbing head.
One of the better memories I have was of all the nights my mom would sit on the front porch talking and laughing with our neighbor, the sound of cicadas buzzing from the trees in our front yard, and me and my friends seeing how many lightning bugs we could kill with our squirt guns. Nobody back then could have predicted how things would end up so many years later but at that moment, life was good.
All of that and much, much more is what really counts. The ones who matter the most to us don’t require a visit and they don’t ask our permission when they show up in our minds unexpected. They left their mark, their legacy, and they did it so routinely, so quietly and so selflessly over the years that we never even realized it until much later when it helps sustain us long after they’re gone. They planted their seeds and those seeds will continue to grow and thrive until we do the same for those we will eventually leave behind.