Thursday, June 14, 2012

Whistling Past the Graveyard

It took five months to live up to my New Year's Resolution to resume the afternoon walk with Cheyenne, but in May we began again where we left off.  So, unless something dire is taking place at work or if a hockey/baseball game interferes with the schedule, after Cheyenne's dinner we go for the nightly "walkie-walk" and she leads the way.  She knows exactly where it is she wants to go, which is to the cemetery.

In our neighborhood, the cemetery is the focal attraction.  I'm a bad judge of spaces, but it's got to be 100 acres minimum, maybe more, definitely not less, of the most prime real estate in Shaler.  It weaves through rolling hills that overlook a breathtaking view of the Appalachian foothills that kiss the outskirts of Pittsburgh.   One section dips down into a quiet open meadow.  No matter if you are high or low, it is a lovely place and only the dead reside there.  At first I thought that a shame that bordered on the criminal, but I've since re-thought it, which brings me to the post I'm writing currently and the overall question it poses:  do the living need a physical place to come and honor the dead?

At first I wouldn't walk Cheyenne there, although I saw other people walking their dogs.  I thought it would be construed as dishonorable to allow my smelly, panting, pooping dog to slobber along the gravesides of people's loved ones.  But, gradually I noticed that people treat it like a park.  Not only do they walk their pets there, they walk their kids in strollers, jog, and take picnics there.  I have to confess, there is nothing scary or intimidating about so much death, it's beautiful and peaceful.  Almost makes me wish I would be spending my eternity tucked somewhere along its gently rolling hillsides underneath a pine tree or two.

Cheyenne loves it because it is full of delicious smells.  I sometimes do shudder to think exactly what all she can smell, but she seems particularly keen on a gopher the size of a house that lives under the Siemon family, but now has opened up a new hole in the meadow.  She can trace that animal's movements from a half mile away, I swear.  She knows exactly where to go to find the Siemon family headstone and the huge hole that betrays that something other than just the three Siemons rest there.  The funny thing is, she spends so much time with her nose pressed to the ground that she misses the actual animal she is seeking.  But I see him.  And he's huge, hence his nickname "Godzilla Gopher".  She also flushes out bunnies and the occasional deer, so I guess I retract my former statement:  a number of creatures live on the land, just none of them human.

The site is split somewhat informally into the newer and older section.  We live closer to the newer side, so that's sadly where we walk the most.  I say sadly because the sense of history one gets walking on the other side is deeper.  There is a website listing the gravesites and somewhere over there is someone who died in the 18th century.  I am determined to find him, but I haven't yet.  On "my" side, there are people who died in 1865 resting next to someone who died in 2005.  Travis Augustine rests there.

I first found Travis last September.  I was noticing the number of Steeler memorabilia placed on people's graves as the season opened and was drawn to his in particular because it was buried, if you'll allow, with stuff.  Balloons, flowers, wreaths and Terrible Towels, among other sundry things, including family photos.  Turns out it was the anniversary of his death a day or two before.  He was a year younger than Kelsey and died about a year after her.  I went home and looked up his obituary.  He was an army vet.  So, this Memorial Day I went to pay my respects.  And, with all the paraphernalia gone, I could see they had purchased a double headstone and the vase in-between says "Together Forever".  The obituary doesn't mention that he was married, so I'm not sure who that neighboring spot is for  - but he left people behind who loved him and they clearly gather there occasionally.  There is always something there to show he's been visited recently.

Tonight Cheyenne and I walked past three men who were tending to someones grave.  They were just packing up lawn equipment and a broom, and one of the men was taking photos of the grave.  Mother had photos of Dad's headstone, which struck me as macabre, but she kept it up with the family photos like it was a picture of Dad himself.  So, I was not surprised when I saw that:  I would imagine he'll share it with other family members who are not close by.  Then the three men (brothers perhaps?) stayed and were talking - they were still there when Cheyenne and I headed home.   Whoever they have buried there brought these three men together for a bonding moment, I thought as we walked back past them.

My side of the cemetery is positively littered with stuff.  There are very few rules to the cemetery.  The people here violate them all with less than no compunction and the grounds staff seem content to allow it to continue.  There are hundreds of plastic flower bouquets, wreaths, wind chimes, solar lights, little statutes of angels, an occasional coffee cup or a bottle of booze and, of course, sports stuff.  This is Pittsburgh after all.  This time of the year, all the service men and women have flags above their headstones.  There are a lot of people who serve in the military in this area - it's somewhat awe-inspiring to see all of those flags.  I wander through that section and think, "Wow, maybe it is important to have a place for people to remember their loved ones."  Then I glance to the older side and see how devoid of anything it is.  All their family is dead and gone as well.  There is no one to remember these people.  There are only us walkers looking at their fading names and wondering what they were like in life, but for the most part they are forgotten.  Their headstones are leaning and dirty.  The land around them is mowed, but no one is there to love or honor them and they are taking up space, and not much more.  Some of them have ended up like the Siemons - fodder for gophers on steroids.  And that's just sad.

I don't know, close to the anniversary of my daughter's death, if I've saved her from eventually being some random name on a sloping headstone that no one knows, or if I have robbed her friends and other family of having a place to go and connect with her memory by having her ashes here with us?  I've always figured you remember the person, not the body.  But when I watched those men tonight...

No comments:

Post a Comment