My mother tells me that as I child I referred to the cemetery as “the park for dead people.” From the mouths of babes, the truth rushes forth.
While attending an academic conference in Boise, I took a break from things to hike into the foothills and to visit the old pioneer cemetery. It was a quiet and haunting place, this small collection of graves inside a wrought iron fence. The October afternoon was warm and the flag on its pole flapped in a gentle breeze.
I walked down the rows of graves, reading the headstones and imagining the lives of the people buried there. I imagined too the lives of those who have known them and left them here to rest from the cares of the world in this park for dead people.
It still seems an apt description to me — the park for dead people. We might argue that libraries serve much the same function. Like the stretch of library bookshelf, a hard-won plot of textual territory, the cemetery is a modest patch of land dedicated to the idea of honoring our forebears and remembering the past.
There are cultures that believe you don’t pass into the next stage of death until there is know one left alive who remembers you. So, I was especially touched to see that someone visiting earlier had placed a small stone atop each grave marker that said “Unknown,” a token to remember the humanity of those who were forgotten even when they were alive.
Inadequate perhaps, but at least it’s some sort of acknowledgment of what came before. We can be a fickle and forgetful people. The pressures of daily life occupy us so completely that we often lose the long view, that life is brief and fragile. But cemeteries remind us that previous generations were once as we are now, up and moving around, rushing through their own brief span of time, moving across the country, building houses, laughing, loving, living.