Cemeteries: a lifelong interest

My brother's grave in rural Iowa

During my senior year of high school, I took Humanities, a class akin to those featured in inspirational films where teachers provoke their students to all things bright and beautiful.  The teacher featured in my experience was Nola Jean Poklitar, and she was just a few years before her retirement. She was (and is) filled with sharp wit, intelligence, and class that radiated through her yet-blond tresses.  (After she retired she published a memoir The Other Side of the Desk.)  One day, we were taken to the local cemetery and asked to look around the headstones, find one of interest, and make some notes on it.  It was the longest time I'd ever spent in a cemetery, and I enjoyed the peace and the history of the place.
Lakewood Cemetery
in Minneapolis, Minnesota

I think it was in that cemetery that my interest and intrigue in cemeteries began.  Cemeteries seemed and still seem to me as places of rest for the living and the dead, something like reverent parks.  Over the years, I've often pulled off a road when I've sighted a cemetery, or I've sought them out.  During one summer, I lived near a large cemetery near northeast Minneapolis, and I would bike down there with Dostoyevsky in my bag and read.

I decided to have a look through my photos of cemeteries I've taken over the years, and I soon surpassed over 300 photos just of cemeteries, not to mention the many cemeteries that I haven't photographed.  Here's just a glance at some of the varied cemeteries I've seen over the years:

Inside the Cimitero Monumantele, Milan
Cemetery outside Jerusalem
Olšanské hřbitovy in Prague
Vyšehradské hřbitov in Prague
Cemetery somewhere on the island of Mallorca
Cemetery in St. Lucia, in the Caribbean

Cemetery in rural Minnesota
Holywell Cemetery in Oxford
This last photo was taken this month in Oxford.  Each person carries his or her own opinion of cemeteries.  Some who have lost loved ones find cemeteries a dreadful reminder, while others find it a place of blessed remembrance.  Some are haunted by too many ghost stories, and others just see it as a glorified park.  I've had friends in all camps, and my friend Caroline--who currently lives in Oxford--is one who is perfectly content to stroll through a cemetery and, through the brief words on their tombstones, remember those who have gone before.

During one of our walks together, we strolled through Holywell Cemetery.  Its age seems to be greater, since the grass is let to grown in order to preserve the natural ecosystem.  As I meandered among the stones, I began to compare the epitaphs.  Some seemed like a permanent CV of the work of the person at one of the Oxford universities.  Some seemed hopeful as they spoke of a life hereafter or of a future reunion.  My favourite tombstones were those that showed the deep love of the deceased.

Here are some of the epitaphs that struck me most:
A beloved manLionel Harrowitz
Dear husband of Mary
And loving father of Anna

Born 1913-Died 1988

Adrian Edmund Gillers
Oceanographer and Meteorologist
A man of integrity dearly loved by his family Helen, Jane, and Simon

Affectionate remembrance of Edmund Furley . . . his end was peace.

In loving memory of Emily, eldest daughter of George Palmer.  Sometime M.P. for reading.  
Beloved wife of Sir Edward Bagnall Poulton, F.R.S.. 
Born 8th September 1856.  Died 20th April 1939.  
Her children rise up and call her blessed.  
The dusky strand of death inwoven here with dear loves tie makes love himself more dear.

To the beautiful memory of *Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair. 
Who passed the river on the 6th of July 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.

*Intrigued by the preceding epitaph, I looked him up, and I found that these words were written by the deceased's cousin (and writer) Anthony Hope.  Moreover, I learned that his contribution to literature had been nothing other than The Wind in the Willows and other children's literature.

I left the Holywell Cemetery feeling reflective.  Rather than feeling particularly focused on the hereafter, the experience made me think of the here and now, wondering how my relationships with others could be summed up in a phrase or a sentence.  It renewed that sense of urgency in me, that today is when we have the power to act.  We can only act now.  As Annie Dillard said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."


Popular Posts