Tag Archives: cemetery

In Stone

“In the beginning there was the word.” So it says in John 1:1. (Which, for the non-scientific/rational-minded among us, makes a smidgen more sense than Genesis’ “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth,” because, obviously, that wasn’t the beginning, since there was a god already in place to do the creating, therefore necessitating an even earlier beginning when this god entity turned up. Of course, if you listen to others, who can be found hanging out and furtively smoking on the corner of Physics and Theology, there was no beginning, there is no end, no edge, or borders – the nothingness in which the universe expands always was, always will be, and goes on forever. having no physical or existential limits. If, of course, there is even such a thing as existence. Be still, my Earthbound, finite mind.)

We held my mother’s unveiling a week ago. For those out of that particular loop: In Jewish tradition, sometime between about six months and a year after a person’s death the family is called back to the grave; in the interim, the tombstone has been completed, and, for this occasion, it is covered with a cloth that is, at the end of a brief ceremony, torn off or in some way removed, to reveal – or “unveil” – the finished monument. It’s intended to be a cathartic event, providing, in today’s touchy-feely parlance, closure. (As if, with the death of a loved one, there can be such a thing, until, of course, you come to a close.)

The tombstone in question here has been in place since 1993, when my father died. His name and dates are on one side of the stone, and for all those years my mother’s side was blank, absent only a “Coming Soon – Watch this Location” sign. Likewise, and  strangely: Although the ground in front of the stone looked exactly the same whether on my father’s side or my mother’s, his had a placeness – not only because we knew that he was buried there (and that we humans are squeamish about stepping on graves), which posits a certain “sacred” authority to a patch of ground, but also because the stone had his name on it. Words defined the space; where his name on the stone ended was, in our minds, the dividing line between holy ground and just turf. We can’t imagine, really, the casket below (or, perhaps, don’t want to), but his name and accompanying words and numbers give the place a space, a solidity, even some sort of air rights. The half of the plot that would someday hold my mother’s remains was simply the place we stood on to look at my father’s half – like standing in front of a vacant store: no “there” there …until a sign goes up announcing the new tenant.

Now, my mother is there, and, when we removed that gauzy fabric, so was her name, chiseled in stone. And that made all the difference. Until then, she wasn’t there; once the words were visible, she was. Now her patch of ground was not what it had been – now, with the presence of her name and dates, it had power. In an out-of-sight-out-of-mind world, she is now officially, authoritatively, in sight, and that acknowledged “thereness” – in a bland, modern cemetery of such little “thereness” – is a strong placeness with emotional impact. The words make it – her death, her absence – real. It happened. It is final. Not the cemetery setting, not the slightly mounded earth, but those letters etched in that stone. The truth is there.

In the end there are the words. That’s all there is and, maybe, all there ever was.

 

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Filed under Life, Musings, Random, Uncategorized, Words Words Words

Rest in Peace

We came up to Woodstock this week to buy property. Actually, two properties: one for the next chapter in our lives, and one for the last. Not much luck, yet, on that first mission. But, as for the other … well, let’s just say that we can check “take care of eternity” off our to-do list. We just staked our claim to a three-and-a-half by ten foot bit of it.

Cemeteries, at least the old ones, by their very nature are repositories of placeness. They are fields of stories, untold, hinted at, of lives lived and lives snatched away, of fulfillment and mortal theft, of the luck of the draw and the final act of field-leveling and shared fate. These days, though, cemeteries are gated communities for the dead, with rigid rules of corporate bloodlessness that rival those of New York high-end co-ops: size of stone, type of shrub, adornment of gravesite – all spelled out and enforced. In this way, they are not only places for the dead but dead places; in terms of placeness, dead zones. Cold uniformity that robs the deceased of their individuality.

But old cemeteries? They are like walking in libraries, among giant, upright books that tell the simplest of tales, engaging the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, to ride that dash between birth and death dates. There is no greater exercise of narrative imagination than standing before a tombstone and trying to reassemble the life and death it announces. And there is no odder yet more comforting act, nothing more soothing, nothing more frightening and shiver-inducing, than to walk among an old cemetery’s tall and short, upright or tilted, clean or moss-covered monuments, stepping about the now-and-again suddenly too-soft earth, and hearing the whisper of an invitation, one for which you can do nothing but return your R.S.V.P.

The plot we bought – and on one of our birthdays, no less; talk about symbolism or circularity! – is in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery, just off Rock City Road. How can you not love a town that sees its duty to be an artists’ colony from cradle to grave, that honors the act of art-making and those who do it by designating a lovely rise near town to keep the recorders of beauty and shapers of thought close by and attended to? How can anyone who feels himself to be an artist not want to be, forever, in a field among others, equal among equals, the best-known name and the least sharing, finally, that same table at that same cafe, egotism a thing of the past.

We’ve written about the Artists Cemetery on our website, and instead of being gauche and quoting ourselves, we direct you there, where we think we captured some of its spirit and placeness, its sophistication yet innocence, its sadness yet celebration, its sweetness and, in a way, its victory. If, in its strong placeness – far stronger than at the traditional cemetery across the road – one feels there are ghosts afoot, they are triumphal spirits: artists become art.

Come visit us at plot K-12, up the hill, a little to the right of the tree, just down from the Wilsons. But no hurry. We’re not quite done the art of living. But when our time comes, we will be vapor once more, and vapor among vapors of brethren.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Small & Great