Democracy of Death

Few experiences in life are as enjoyable as wandering through a cemetery.  Nothing steels one’s appreciation for life like being surrounded by death.

The attitude a cemetery engenders begins as a form of schadenfreude—“Look at all the people I have managed to outlast!”—but gradually shifts and mellows into an understanding of death’s role as the Great Equalizer, as you are swiftly reminded that it is a mere matter of time and fortune before you, too, are returned to the earth from whence you came.

If this thought does not lift your spirits to new heights, I don’t know what would.

Well, it so affected me, anyway, as I ambled through a pair of local graveyards this past Memorial Day weekend, visiting family members past with a team of family members present.

While our self-guided holiday tour of the dear departed was ostensibly to pay our respects to our own kin, straying from the family plot and exploring the headstones of strangers was no less compelling.  Indeed, it was more so, as we did not know what we might uncover.

What we found—what anyone finds in any cemetery, if one takes the time to look—is the extraordinarily democratic nature of the grounds.  How fantastically interesting it would be (scrambling the space-time continuum accordingly) were the good folks buried within any random tract of land to be occupying the same space at the same time while they were still alive.

Think of it:  Just a few precious feet from a gentleman whose tenure on Earth stretched 104 years lies a poor boy who lived not beyond the age of seven.

A World War I flying ace lounging in eternal rest nearby a lifelong housewife who perhaps never traveled outside her own home town.

A husband and wife so economically well-endowed that they had a rendering of their beloved yacht etched onto the back of their family stone, and then, in the very same row, a lowly duo whose own rock was so cheap it had broken in two and was very clumsily glued back together.

Not all depositories of human remains are so egalitarian, of course.  Our national cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, for instance, only accepts those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces (and their families).  Others only stow adherents to a particular religion.  Still others no longer conduct any burials at all, having exhausted all available real estate or simply desiring to maintain an aura of antiqueness.

Yet I prefer those that do not discriminate, because of the way they serve as a desegregating force—an eternal counterbalance to all the ephemeral self-segregation we conduct in our waking lives—providing for a messy mishmash of company with no business intermingling except for a series of temporal and geographic coincidences.

Is this not what we envision heaven to be like?  An infinite series of odd couplings at a celestial cocktail party, with unlimited time to reach common ground and achieve some manner of redemption and peace?

Studying the headstones at such a place, one recognizes the primacy of chance in the trajectories of our lives, and how cosmic accidents such as what century one happens to be born into can determine one’s fate far more than we realize most of the time.

For instance:  You see the alarming number of graves of people who died in their thirties and forties, with dates of death fairly close together, and wonder how many of those lives might have been drastically different had they encompassed the eradication of polio or smallpox.

How many of our own arcs will be significantly extended (and enhanced) by scientific and medical innovations that did not even exist when we were born?

And so, for all the ways cemeteries illustrate the commonalities across all of humanity—namely, our common fate as decomposing corpses and piles of ash—they simultaneously remind us of the shackling nature of time and other circumstances beyond our control, which doom us to live very distinct lives, indeed.

We are left to regard these facts in any manner we wish, and I suppose that trudging through a graveyard is not everyone’s conception of a gay old time.

But I do not see why this should be so, as the experience can be every bit as engaging as plunging into any great work of nonfiction or touring an exhibit of historical artifacts.  In essence, that is what a cemetery is, for there is no more primary source of history than the people who made and lived it.  We, the people.

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