There is something about a cemetery —solemnity, stillness, that evokes contemplation.
Every morning I pass by at least three cemeteries: St. Michael’s, Cypress Hills, and Mount Carmel.
This one morning I actually parked the car and took a stroll through Cypress Hills. My walk flooded me with thoughts and feelings about life, about death.
Cypress Hills Cemetery was established during the Civil War when the government had to create an organized system to deal with the hundreds of thousands of slain war dead. The section I walked through holds the remains of military veterans who served in the two world wars, Korea. Rows of rows of uniform block white stones. So sooo many, young men, old men, with a spattering of headstones belonging to their wives even dead infants.
I surveyed and read the inscriptions on each individual headstone as carefully as I would look into a living face. I tried to pick up clues about who they were, how old when they died, which war and which department they had served. Some navy , some infantry, some air force, some with a star of David inscribed at the top others with a cross in a circle. I studied each last name: Ferrara, O’Shannon, Lim, for clues as to ancestry and ethnicity. These were silent strangers. The mystery of never knowing each person’s story made me think how we are each divided in our own unknowing. Each one had a unique story and life. But you could not know the details from just skimming over the headstone, by looking absentmindedly into the eyes of a passerby.
We are as similar and ordinary in death as we are in life. I remembered the rows of baby beds when my first daughter was born. Each birth is unique and ordinary at the same time. Just like the headstones in a cemetery. Each life lived under different circumstances, yet ending side by side in the same outline. We are not so different so unique as we think we are. We will all lie down next to one another in the end.
And then another thought—these were all soldiers, all men. I forget how many men gave their lives to serve in wars that may or may not have served them. And I had to think that war is an exclusively male domain. Men engage in war and women in birth. Things haven’t changed that much from the time of the caves.
It was chilling to walk through the rows on a chilly December morning. But the pause in the cemetery serves as a fitting reminder of the inevitable, a momento mori. It is a wonderful way to start the day sort of like when teachers use backward design to develop teaching units with the end in mind. Looking at graves makes you stop taking your day for granted. It all stops here, in the ground. “The ground we step on and kick at,” my yiayia used to say, “will be our blanket, will cover us all.”
I can’t help but think that I spend more time planning my weekends and outfits than I do mapping out the course of my life. If you haven’t thought about your death, how can you think about your life? As Christians we are implored to see life through the shadow of death. Like the Calavera Catrina, we can busy ourselves with ruffling up our bodies and embellishing our flesh, but underneath lies the skeleton. We are all walking skeletons until we can walk no more.
Only by walking through the cemetery in the morning do you remember to put things in perspective—the bills, the petty squabbles, the snubs. How is it that you want to live your life really? The passing through the cemetery every morning helps me center my day. That is the gift the dead bestow on the living: the reminder that we have to cherish each moment and make it beautiful even when it’s not.