what is it about cemeteries?

Sometimes just going out to lunch or dinner with an ex isn’t just the pleasant experience you think it’s gonna be.

We went to one of the places we usually go to. We ordered items congruent with who we each are at the moment. And instantly, the conversation turned to disease, dying, and death — nothing unusual there. Both of us have mothers in need of care. Both of us have fathers who are gone. There, the similarities between us end.

To tell the truth, I thought we’d be together forever. If it wasn’t us together, then it would be nobody at all. Turns out, I do ‘nobody at all’ rather well. Maybe a little too well. Alone, I become (even more) competent. Efficient. You can’t be called a control freak if there’s no one else around to do things wrong, right? Right. I clearly have no business trying to live with anyone who might be called an ‘equal partner.’ And I’ve become just fine with that (And yes, I do know what utter bullshit this paragraph is — but I need it to make my argument here).

So that’s why the conversation floored me.

We’d both been thinking about the same cemetery. And suddenly, there we were planning a nice biodegradable, eco-friendly burial side by side, in glorious Marin, overlooking some of our favorite trails. Blew me away, this turn of events. And yet, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

I’ve had this intimate conversation before. Used to check out old-West cemeteries with another ex, looking for just the right shabby little rundown plot of earth to lie down under a slab of stone together along the Western Coast. Or up in the Mother Lode of the High Sierra. We’d compose brilliant epitaphs and laugh our heads off. It was always somehow so very romantic. Oh. And another ex, and another cemetery. It’s as if cemeteries (like those wooded and mountain top trails) were some kind of foreplay. There were other couples wandering through, clearly as high as we were.

We’ve flirted with going by way of fire and ash. But no. The call of the earth is just too great. The sound of the sea. The smell of the redwoods just around the bend. The golden hills leading up the mountain. Who could resist all that?

And this time we mean it.

A door opens, I always say, and either we walk through, or we turn aside. And if we turn aside, that door doesn’t open again. The moment is lost.

And a door just opened. And I want to walk through it, and make this happen. Time to get serious (or not so serious) and pick a spot overlooking the Pacific. Maybe some shade trees nearby. In this place, nothing (or rather, no one) is marked. There’s no stone, no brass plates, no names, no dates. What there is are GPS tracking devices, as you follow a trail. And there you are, rotting anonymously next to an anonymous ex or two or three.

And suddenly, I want to bring my sister there as well. And keep an eye on her (yes, I said that). And somehow that feels a whole lot less — what? Not lonely, exactly. No. A whole lot less useless. As if fertilizing the ground isn’t enough to ask for.

Weird as it sounds (even to me) the idea of sheltering my baby sister (who has to be moved from her lonely site, anyway) — makes all this death and dying a bit more palatable. Like — as in life, that I’d have some role to play that feels just right. Taking care of others…

Now, I’m not an idiot. I do know that none of this makes rational sense. But it feels right. And these days, I’m so busy being rational, utilitarian and efficient (this last one, fairly poorly, I might add), that going with something that feels right — just feels … right.

“In life,” she said, “we only lasted 5 months.  Maybe we can do better with eternity.”

“I wonder,” I said, “if I can manage to stay still that long.”

And on that note, let me wish you a delightful New Year’s eve — celebrating the last dying ember of a very hard year — and wish you as well the most cheerful of New Years possible. Filled with joy, lollipops and shiny high tech toys, and most of all, filled with long walks down beautiful trails overlooking the still unspeakably magnificent Pacific Coast.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

2 replies on “what is it about cemeteries?”

Mira, I love this. Sorry it took so long to read it all the way through.

When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, there was one cemetery a block away in one direction, and another a block away in the opposite. The second cemetery, set on top of a hill, had my favorite monument ever: It was about as tall as I am. From the front, it was a ruined classical temple — fallen pillars, lintel crashed down. Names, dates.

But on the back! The New Jerusalem carved in glorious, floating bas-relief at the top of the monument, into shining smooth stone. Below it, some poem or other.

The back was a great example of that Christian certainty that life goes on (and in almost-recognizable form, no less). But what I loved was the front: Mortality means the ruin of the physical. This grave marker confronted us with that head-on. Few do.

But your woods and ferns and dappled sunlight and birds are a comfort too: when we’re filling a grave, we’re using the same motions and muscles and tools that we use to turn the compost.

It’s the compost part that I really relate to. I love the image you describe above. But this is about the monuments. When we think birds and ferns, yah, we end up with (or as) compost. Suddenly I’m thinking about being planted with olive pits in my pockets (or whatever) — and an olive orchard growing up on the hillside of Gan Yarok…

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