Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.
I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?
I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.
How must have life, and death, felt like then?
Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.
Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.
How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.
Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.
It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.
Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.
My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.
If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.
I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.
My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.
Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?