Friday, September 16, 2011

Permanence in an Ephemeral World

I have never been big on shrines, not much for memorials.  I’ve never seen the point of flowers and teddy bears stuck into a chain link fence by a murder scene.  I think the crosses beside the road are weird and kind of creepy.  I sometimes wonder if the bereaved would notice if someone moved the cross a quarter mile down the road.

If everywhere someone died became a shrine, what would the world look like?  You couldn’t even get in the door of a hospital for all the stuff.  Battlefields in the South would be filled with markers of Civil War and Union dead.  Gettysburg would be a sea of 40,000 ticky-tacky crosses with fading fake flowers half tied on.  Battlefields do need a few monuments and markers with information, but for the most part, battlefields are just open fields.  You can stand in those fields and imagine the tragedy and the waste of life.   Without a lot of gimcracks.

All this is by way of saying that while I dislike makeshift memorials and shrines, I love cemeteries.  Always have.  Cemeteries are altogether another thing.  (Hey, I’m not saying I am consistent in my likes and dislikes here.)

Cemeteries make me wonder about the lives of people I never knew.  Look how long Mrs. Smith lived after the death of her husband – twenty years.  Did she move on with life?  Did she miss him until the end?  Here’s a man who died in the prime of life.  Was it a flu epidemic?  A farm accident?  My goodness, Mr. Jones certainly had a younger wife!  Was there an earlier Mrs. Jones who died in childbirth?  And then there are the head-scratchers.  Once we were scrambling around a rocky cemetery in Edinburgh when we came upon a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.  Huh?

This has to be in color because of the roses.

Cemeteries can even occasionally give you a chuckle.  In my local cemetery, someone placed two plastic pigs on the gravestone of a farmer.  I also saw the McDonald's arches carved into someone's stone.  Not sure if he owned a McDonald's franchise or just ate too many quarter pounders.  My favorite: In an abbey cemetery in County Clare, my daughter and I discovered the Saint in a Bubble.  I don’t know the real name, but that’s what they are, little statues of saints inside water globes.  We loved them! 

Mostly, though, I love cemeteries for their beauty.  Veterans’ cemeteries have majesty with the vast swath of identical headstones, but I prefer a local cemetery with its hodge-podge of markers and monuments (and increasingly, shrines).  Big stones, small stones, the heartbreaking lamb headstones of babies.  The older headstones are my favorites – the carving, the patina, the lichen.  Where so much in the world is ephemeral, the permanence of the massive stones and the painstaking work that went into making them, this is a lesson for me.  The quick and easy, makeshift thing is not always best.

More photos from my recent walk through a local cemetery.

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