Cemeteries have gotten popular again. Their landscape of hills and dales, lawns and ancient trees, slightly wild flower plantings and solid monuments and sculpture are great for walking. You can never get lost, except in thought. If no one’s in sight, they can also be a perfect place to let the dog run wild, chasing squirrels and sniffing out the burrows of chipmunks, voles and whatever else creates homes along the edges of gravestones.
In the old ones, you can see simple death’s-head statements on weathered markers, or those Dutch and Huguenot plots where the patriarch is surrounded by a circle of his progeny and that progeny’s progeny. Otherwise, the more Victorian the cemetery the better, what with their sculpted head-bent angel women in tears, their Celtic crosses and stately mausoleums sometimes built into faux hills.
Cemeteries are designed to inspire introspection, to start the ball rolling down the hill from the awesomeness of eternity and mortality to one’s inner cosmology and prioritizing of life’s elements. They’re a perfect place to visit during a lockdown, a place where interior lives are lent exteriors.
Are we all going to emerge from the captivity of recent months with fresh understanding and a broadened concept of yearning? Or will we all be competing to see who can recover what was lost fastest?
I recently went searching for the grave of Seth Wheeler, inventor of the toilet roll. On the first trip I told my son Milo all about his great-grandmother, who collected toilet paper when traveling in Europe. The second time we joked about bidets. The final time, with a photo of the site on our phones, we found Wheeler’s grave.
I told my son there had been a 40-year gap between Wheeler’s invention and the creation of a process to make his rolls actually comfortable.
“You’d think the guy who invented toilet paper would have a more noticeable memorial,” my son replied, sounding twice his age. “Maybe the splinters made everyone mad.”
Mother, father, child. The words repeat themselves throughout the cemeteries we visit. Smaller stones denote the children, some newborn, lost to diseases that ravaged our past.
Walked through slowly, or while catching up with a squirrel-chasing dog off her collar, these places are filled with life. Sprouts among sodden leaves, ferns and wide-leafed things where water gathers, unseen bugs filling the air. I’ll have to remember to ask for help searching out ticks tonight.