The Final Dance

I have an attraction to cemeteries. Now don't go jumping to conclusions. It's not because I have an unnatural fascination with death or dying or anything else macabre which most "normal" people would find strange or weird. Much to the contrary. I have a fascination with living, especially since I have already visited the other side and made it back (Not Dead & Maybe A Bit Wiser).

Evergreen Cemetery; Paris, TX.
Death is the one thing we all have in common. The final frontier isn't space or the deepest ocean; it's death. To boldly go where everyone has gone before. I've come to the conclusion that graveyards are not really for the dead, but for the living. It's where the ones still living come to commune with their loved ones who have passed. It's where the living come to mourn. It's where the living come to pay their respects to the dead. It's where the living show their love by erecting monuments. Rural graveyards are even places of social events for the living.

When I was young and spent a portion of my summers on my relative's very rural farm in East Texas, I remember "decoration day," a day when the community would come together at the local graveyard wearing gloves and work clothes, carrying hoes and picnic baskets. Weeds would be eliminated, grass scraped off the graves, trash picked up, headstones righted and repaired, fences mended and everyone talked and told amusing "remember when" stories about the lives of the dead. When it came lunch time, everyone brought out their food for a community pot-luck with plenty of fresh vegetables, potato salad, beans, pies and tea. After lunch, the men would sit in groups on the cool grass under shade trees, smoking their cigarettes while the women and girls cleaned and divided up the left-overs and the young boys would toss around a football in the dirt road. Eventually, almost by tradition and no matter how hot it already was, one of the men would say, "It's getting hot. We better finish up" and everyone would go back to hoeing and scraping and cleaning and repairing and telling more stories. By mid-afternoon, everyone would judge the place to be in fine shape and as people left, individuals would stop by a headstone or two or three, they would rest their hand on it and, with head down, say a few whispered words to their loved one who lay below. The connection to the community of the living would be reaffirmed and the connection to the dead would be maintained.

Grave of a child marked by a statue of an angel.
That annual ritual I experienced throughout my youth is most probably the root of my affinity for cemetery tramping. Every cemetery is a story itself and every cemetery tells a story about the place where it is located. And every person buried in that cemetery has a story to tell. At some point in their existence, everyone meant something to someone. There are over 46,000 known cemeteries in Texas alone and no one knows how many more have been lost to history through time, weather, neglect, the building of roads and shopping centers and sub-divisions and simply because the people who knew about one have all passed on themselves and been laid to rest somewhere else. Weeds and brush have reclaimed a lot of the land where our ancestors still lie.

Sleeping child in a sea shell.
And so, I often find myself during my travels being a tombstone tourist. I look for the art and the history and the stories. Sometimes I find huge, ostentatious statutes the rich have erected to themselves; sometimes I find simple headstones with words inscribed which bring tears to my eyes even though I don't know the people. I've seen humor and I've seen things that make no sense at all except to the people who know the story. I've seen crude, hand-made crosses of fence pickets with names and dates hand-painted by someone with little education, but they cared. I've seen many graves marked by a square block of cement, name and dates written with a nail before the cement dried. I've found cemeteries with fascinating stories to them even though no famous person is buried within and I've found famous people buried in little known, discreet, out-of-the-way corners. I've seen, much like the Vietnam Memorial Wall, numerous items like coins, bottles, pictures, candles, white rocks, shells and other personally meaningful objects left on graves and headstones to indicate someone stopped by, someone cared.

Sharing Christmas with the dearly departed.
I believe every cemetery is worth visiting and the people in them are worth remembering. They are our history. It will be us there one of these days.