Empty barns, dry grass by the door. A house once here,
Not here anymore. And yet pigeons are old poems, of that I am sure.
Pigeons, and grave stones, where once there were words.
About a mile down the road from the house where I grew up, there is a little cemetery situated on a corner knoll where the soil is a light, sandy gray.
Surrounded by a plain iron fence and without any grass, the entire grounds occupy no more than a third of an acre. The place is kept company by squirrels, rabbits, lizards, and a variety of birds that raid the nearby vineyards and orchards. A tiny shed used by the caretaker stands in the center of the lot.
As best as I can remember, I knew only one of the people buried in this unassuming spot, and that man was our family doctor, who very early one Monday morning did me the lifesaving favor of removing my appendix when it was ripe and ready to burst.
Once or twice a year the cemetery welcomes someone new to its number and a procession of cars will pass by our old home place.
As a kid, I remember many times standing and watching with my father as a long line of cars drove slowly by. We always took off our hats and would stop whatever it was we were doing until everyone had passed.
During my grade school years, the bus I rode used to turn at the cemetery corner, and I would always look to see if there had been any activity.
More likely than not the place was completely undisturbed. But occasionally I would note with satisfaction a recently raked and burned pile of leaves, or the door of the caretaker’s shed standing open and a rake or shovel leaning against the building.
I didn’t think much about eternity in those days. To me, the cemetery was just another place. Still, it was a place that belonged, every bit as much as the farm houses, barns, and chicken coops that shared the neighborhood. I liked having it nearby.
Little by little, as the noticing, acknowledging and recording of death became part of my own life, I began to make a point of paying an occasional visit to other cemeteries, especially the smaller ones scattered around the countryside.
I’ve never had much of a feeling for the newer places, whose tidy flat stones and lack of trees seem altogether too precise and formal. To me, a cemetery needs to be a little careless, and, above all, its stones must be vertical, despite the modern practical concerns of lawn mowing equipment and hourly wages.
Our lives, certainly, are not lived so uniformly, and this last attempt at restoring order seems silly and out of place.
To me, a cemetery is not a morbid place. Cemeteries are marble orchards, bone yards, boot hills, and a fact of life.
And, though we seldom mention it, they are also artificial communities of people who, when living, may well have hated each other, stolen from each other, and cheated on each other’s wives and husbands.
Ah, well. Some things never change.
But the thing I like most about cemeteries, and the reason I visit them, is that they give me a chance to stop and puzzle over the stories each marker represents.
As one of my all-time favorite inscriptions goes, “Who knows the dreams that lie here buried?”
Who knows, indeed?
Neither you nor I.
It is impossible to know.
But I do think it’s worthwhile to make a guess. Because, in so doing, we might remember once again what our own dreams are.
I’m Telling You All I Know, Notebook Entry #1, 2001