RIP—the Lure of Cemeteries

I hang out in cemeteries. Morbid perhaps, and yet for those who seek tranquility there’s no place quite like it. You are a person who grasps that concept or you retreat from it. Having always harbored a fascination for spots off the beaten path, a cemetery provides seclusion from the familiar—a diversion from the cacophonous roar of life that exists, not only externally, but in the dark recesses of cluttered minds. Sitting among the granite headstones, quietude takes hold as a part of history, connecting past with present puts the life cycle into perspective.

There is an old wives’ tale emanating from childhood where I was warned to never look directly at a cemetery, but avert my gaze away from the rows of plots for fear that the “Evil Eye” might cause a rift in the rhythm of life as I knew it. This piqued my interest even more. Riding in my parents' car aroused in me a sense of illicit excitement that lurked in the dark side of my imagination as I dared to sneak a peek at Clifton’s King Solomon’s Memorial Cemetery whose inferred message was: “Do Not Trespass.”

But trespass I did. Through the years, I dropped in on many New Jersey cemeteries, sometimes to attend funerals, but more often with my friend, Jane, with whom on one autumn afternoon we packed sandwiches and biked the five miles to a cemetery sequestered in a bucolic setting in Montclair, rife for exploration.

It was here I first discovered the allure of solitude—a place where the flurries of our adolescent torments ceased, as if we had entered a still photograph frozen in time. Our bikes steadied against a tree. We settled in, devouring our peanut butter sandwiches, famished from the long bike ride, mostly uphill.

On similar afternoons that followed, I came to understand these silent worlds far removed from the one I inhabited daily. Among the weeping willows, and isolated brooks where wild geese languished, and nearby magnolias dripped their perfumed blossoms, we joined the departed residents, who had passed on long before we were born. Their names are still as blurred as my memories, but their invisible presence continues to resonate. Caught up in their imaginary life stories, we pondered the mysterious phenomenon of life and death, sharing secrets that fell on the deaf ears of those who lay beneath us.

These early cemetery excursions continued for me and held an inexplicable allure. Becoming a regular visitor has since taken me to places with names such as Pleasant Valley, Pine Grove, Elmwood, River View, Willow Brook that sound more like spa getaways than final resting places. I have traveled to the outskirts of Paris, to Knightsbridge in London, and to small New England towns where cemeteries punctuated the landscape, adding local color to the already existing ambiance. I have known personally the tug of grief that only time can relinquish. I have buried two parents and a husband, who died while still in the prime of his life.

I now reside in Westport, Connecticut where the small Evergreen Cemetery lies at the foot of Evergreen Parkway, the street where I live, and where my neighbor Cynthia plans to be buried… some day. “Some day” we like reminding ourselves, is always in some far-off distant future we are not yet ready to acknowledge actually exists.

Many years ago, not far from my college campus, I found a cemetery that provided an escape from the toils of academia, where I wrote papers and read the classics beside a lily-padded pond. The late-day shadows drifted across the stones as slivers of sunlight streamed through the tall elms. It was this cemetery’s meanderings that paved the way from the protected world of childhood into my adulthood, and, on occasion when nostalgia beckons, it is here where my thoughts return.

Now, decades later, I am still drawn to cemeteries, but with older eyes seen through a less-distorted lens. A large chunk of my life behind me. These are no longer secret stomping grounds that were once fraught with eerie trepidation, but hallowed shrines in which to embrace the evolvement of my own life—its beginning and its ultimate closure.

On an early autumn afternoon, much like the day Jane and I wended our way to Montclair, I met a dear friend at a cemetery in the hidden environs of Cedar Knolls, New Jersey. The smell of lingering summer was in the air as we spread a blanket and opened a picnic basket that I had arranged for our lunch. Cemeteries are, after all, grand refuges in which to enjoy, as the French do, le déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Looking down upon a long hill was a panoramic view of headstones reaching out toward a long, dusty path leading to the main road. My friend opened a bottle of champagne in honor of those who came before us. We choose a name from a random footstone, raised a glass and toasted one Alfred Anderson, and his wife Julia. If they were with us now, I am certain they would have made fine picnic guests.

I think of Jane living out west. Certainly, she belongs here, too, and I wonder if cemeteries are still a part of her itinerary. Opening the picnic basket, something stirred in the brush beyond us: perhaps a chipmunk—a daily visitor to these parts. Or, maybe, a loose branch, or the rustle of the first autumn leaves. I wasn’t sure.

The tires of a random car appeared in the distance. It stirred my senses as the subtle presence of ghosts of the past surrounded us. My friend assured me the sounds I heard were those of a bird flying from its nest high above us. But he is not a regular traveler to these parts, and he doesn’t understand the nuances of cemeteries, or the magic that lurks within.

I am lost in reverie. If I allow my fancies to take flight, I am almost convinced, but not quite, that if I listen hard, I can hear them: the dearly departed, welcoming us into their granite splendor, and whom now, having come full circle after years well-lived, dwell beneath the swaying trees.

These cemetery excursions are even sweeter and more vivid now. They do not feel threatening or distracting, but gentle and welcoming, representing the final chapters of our existence. The older I am, the more I treasure these sacred spots where we will ultimately be celebrated and honored by those who knew and loved us, and where the stories of our lives can be remembered, and gently put to rest.

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