Sunday, April 15, 2012

Living With the Dead: Strange Platypus(es)

I was reading Matt Anderson's excellent book a week back and I came to the chapter he devotes to Death.  Anderson draws the reader's attention to the fact that the dead have been systematically excluded from United States' communities (he cites St. Louis in particular) since the mid-1800s.  He also points out the secularization of cemeteries that began in the United States in that period as well.  Reading the chapter, I felt an odd moment of disconnect.  What Anderson seems to have meant as an appeal to common experience didn't appeal to me as common at all.  Let me explain.

I grew up in rural southern New England.  I grew up surrounded by the dead.  Everywhere I went, to church, to school, to the grocery store, to a friend's house, I passed by cemeteries.  Sometimes the church associated with the graveyard still survived, other times only the tombstones remained.  Either way, the dead were always with us: thick as leaves in Vallombrossa.  Learning graveyard lore was a part of life: how to tell a family plot, what the little tombstones meant, where the witch was buried, why the general had his tombstone backwards, what the charnel house was for, about the hill that marked the mass grave from King Philip's War, who had been exhumed and burnt as a vampire.  The dead, our dead, were always with us.  The names etched on worn stones or emblazoned in gold on pillared mausoleums read the same as the list of aldermen or church elders.

Going back to Anderson's book, there is one thing that rang true: a need to probalamitize how we in the modern U.S. treat our dead.  I have no prescriptions or solutions, but I do have a strong distaste at the thought that when I die they'll dump my body in hole wherever I happened to be living and mark it with a plain placard that can be easily mowed over by the ground crew.  Even if vaults and monuments can't last forever, I would at least be gathered to the tombs of my fathers, there to await the Judgement and rise on the last day side by side with my kith and kin.  The fact that this cannot be is yet another reminder of the renunciations we are called to make here in Middle Earth.


Graf Spee said...

Hmm. The only exception to this rule in the modern U.S. is probably veterans cemeteries.

James said...

Yeah. That's interesting. I know there are plenty of modern cemeteries where the city has expanded to envelop the cemetery, but I didn't know about veteran cemeteries. Say on. That sounds like something that could be teased out.