Graves are for the Living

Why you shouldn’t be afraid of headstones.

Pulling my coat close around my body, I wander the gravel paths that weave through the century-old graves. I pass a patch of land fenced in — a section owned by a particular family. I try to imagine how it would feel to bury my mother, knowing that in a couple decades’ time, I would join her at her side. I think it would be comforting, to know that for eternity, my entire family would be five feet away from me.

When I was little, my mom and brother and I would go to a snowball stand that was close by. With our snowballs in hand, we would casually walk around the graveyard of the church that stood next to the stand. I remember being fascinated with the blank gravestones outside of the edge of the cemetery. “They were the ones that couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground,” my mom told me.

There was another cemetery I loved to stare at from the window of my parents’ car as we went to the local public library. One of the graves was a giant angel with her hands outstretched in a beseeching manner. There was also a large headstone with “Kirk” inscribed on it; I used to imagine it was the final resting place of the captain of the Enterprise.

And now there’s the old cemetery that’s behind my college campus. It’s where I walk when I can’t stand to study for another moment, or when my roommate and I would get in a fight. When I felt lonely, I sought comfort in the 100-year-old stones of the cemetery.

It’s kind of an overdone cliché of the lonely, depressed young adult, wearing too much eyeliner and black lipstick, obsessed with graveyards. But my interest is twofold. Yes, death intrigues me as a part of life that I cannot even begin to understand, but graveyards carry an even deeper meaning. They are places that are filled with love.

I don’t believe that the people who die really care what happened to their body after they leave this world — the people who are left behind are the ones who need the place to comfort their loss. Each gravestone stands as a testimony that the one lost is missed, is loved. Everyone has a fear of being forgotten, and graveyards prove that no one is.

They are physical reminders of the past, of where we come from. Even if the buried are not direct family, their time on Earth shaped the towns and cities they are from to what they are today. Their individual acts on Earth may have been obscured — their homes fallen down, their places of business long since sold and renamed — but their headstones stand as evidence that they existed and they were important.

Graves are more for the living than the dead, though. While most are comforted that their remains will be preserved and buried in a polite fashion, for the family and friends that remain, it’s a place where they can feel close to the deceased. It is the same reason why people visit monuments like the Vietnam Memorial, to remember that they were here and that they were important. We all feel like numbers in a population — one of 3,000 in a town, one of 23,000 with a certain disease, one of 1,118 people killed in plane crashes in 2001 — but our headstones give us names.

America is a strange nation where we hide the things that we don’t understand. Sex, although becoming more of a pop culture norm, has always been conducted behind closed doors and never spoken about in a voice above a hushed whisper. We bury our dead in solemn graveyards, and many graves are only visited once or twice a year on holidays.

Other cultures revere their dead and believe they have a great influence on the lives of the living. Many African religions see their ancestors as the equivalent of saints; they are the intermediaries to God. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday where lost family members are celebrated; it’s believed that they come back to visit on that day, too. Family members visit and decorate the graves of loved ones and have picnics and socialize with others in the cemetery. Many Americans would see this as morbid, but it is a festival celebrating the memories of the past.

Western culture has shaped cemeteries into places where the dead rise and wreak havoc. Legends of vampires rising from the grave have existed for centuries, but only in the last 50 years has the popularity of monster movies rocketed graveyards from sacred ground to unholy terror. TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and movies like “Pet Sematary” show cemeteries as places to be feared when walking at night.

But there is one movie that explores cemeteries as the unlikely place where a romantic relationship begins between two unlikely people. “Harold and Maude” is a cult classic movie where the two title characters meet at the funeral of someone neither has even known. Harold is obsessed with death and finds the cemetery as a haven for his morbidity. Maude is an older woman who wears bright colors and attends funerals for the fun of it. She celebrates life in every way possible, and sees funerals as a life-affirming occurrence.

I rarely encounter anybody on my walks around the graveyard. Some people, like Harold, like graveyards because of their peacefulness. I wish that they were livelier and filled with people like Maude. They are places of sadness — that is a given. But they are also a place to remember and to smile.

When I die, I want people to dance on my grave and laugh over memories of the past. I want the guy I sort-of dated in high school to just happen to meet my freshman roommate and compare stories. I want children to play around my headstone and feel alive. I want a lonely stranger, walking casually by, to read my name and know that I was loved, and so they are too.

Article © 2002 by Katie Klimas