Thursday, February 17, 2011

A walk in the graveyard near Whittier

This essay was written ten years ago when Kathleen and I lived in Whittier, CA. I am grateful for the time I've spent meditating in graveyards. Ironically, this time has enhanced my appreciation of life as well as the mystery of death. The only change I would make in this essay today is to say that I would prefer to be cremated, like my beloved Kathleen, and for my Friends to scatter my ashes in places that are dear to them. In the words of a sign I was saw in Santa Anita Canyon, "Treat the earth well. Someday you will return to it."

My wife and I live within walking distance of Rose Hills, one of Southern California’s largest and oldest cemeteries, which overlooks the San Gabriel Valley and the LA basin. Recently we went walking just as afternoon was waning and saw an amazingly peaceful sight: deer grazing among the live oaks and the grass. The more we lingered, the more we saw. We counted several dozens of them. They were so quiet and solemn: whole families of gentle deer, bucks and does and fawns, walking past us, in the soft, late afternoon light, utterly fearless, munching on grass and flowers and feeling safe among those whom Homer called the “Silent Majority.” It was so quiet and still and peaceful that it was hard to believe that less than a mile away was the freeway during rush hour. The sound of cars at this distance was like a far-off waterfall.....

I often go to cemeteries just to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, and to “center down.” Rose Hills is very different from the cemeteries I remember on the East Coast. There each headstone is a different size and shape, and tells a story--usually about the social status of the deceased. You can tell who the movers and shakers of the community were by the impressive monuments erected for them after their death. Even the pastors were caught up in this game. In Princeton, where I grew up, headstones were often inscribed with curricula vitae—“John Q. Witherspoon, graduate of Yale, class of 1799, pastor of the Hopewell First Presbyterian Church, 1820-24,” as if the departed soul wanted to make sure that passers-by (and God) knew about his accomplishments!

Rose Hill cemetery has only flat markers, each the same size, so that it is impossible to know the social rank of the deceased. There are no titles, no indications of religious denomination or career. There are no references to "beloved teacher, lawyer, doctor." There are no ranks, except for PFC, and I expect that's because the former privates receive free markers, and their families are being frugal. I know that was true in the case of my father, who was a PFC during WWII. "Beloved wife, husband, child" are the only roles mentioned on the markers. If there are lieutenants or generals buried in Rose Hills, they prefer to be remembered as "beloved father, husband, or grandfather," not "beloved officer so-and-so."

The use of flat markers has a practical purpose: to make it easier to mow the grass. But flat markers also have an aesthetic and spiritual appeal. The cemetery becomes a lush green field of grass, with occasional trees, where squirrels and deer find a welcome refuge.

Spiritually speaking, it is appealing to see death presented for what it truly is: the great equalizer and simplifier. The multiplicity of roles we play in life is reduced to a common denominator: our family nexus. What the markers say is that, in the end, family is what really matters.

This egalitarian spirit reminded me of the Quaker graveyard in Princeton, where the markers were all the same size—about a foot tall—with just the name and date of birth and death. The equality testimony practiced in death as well as in life gave me pause when I first saw these modest memorials.

Perhaps this was the kind of graveyard that John Greenleaf Whittier walked through when he wrote his poem “Forgiveness”:


My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounts of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

When my turn comes to join the Silent Majority, and all the quarrels and abuses of this world are revealed for what they were—mere background noise--I would like a flat marker, with the inscription: “Beloved husband and friend.” No capital letters, please. No need to mention religious affiliation. In the end, love and friendship are the only things that really matter. In the end, that’s all that God really expects of us.

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