I recently visited Mount Auburn Cemetery which is one of the earliest “garden” cemeteries in the U.S. An extremely well-kept and beautiful place (thank you Karen, my photos don’t do it justice) and I’ve even mentioned it briefly in this blog before. While I was there, leaving yet another note for one of the staff I’d been trying to arrange a meeting with, I realized that my repeated attempts potentially had the effect of branding me as yet another cemetery obsessed goth chick or slightly downbeat Ruth Gordon when actually I’m closer to being Barnesian in my approach and attitude than either of those other stereotypes. In fact I’m looking forward to reading Julian Barnes’ latest book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, since it does sound so much like what runs through my head on a regular basis. Well, the staff member never did decide to give me the time of day, and although of course I’m disappointed I can’t say I blame her. Despite my insistence I’m not morbidly obsessed with graves other than to appreciate cemeteries as rather pleasant sculpture parks, I must admit that a very early love of Edward Gorey did influence my warped sense of goulish humor and fondness for Edwardian landscapes and draped grecian urns. An idiosyncrasy that does tend to set me apart from your average Joe-anne, although from her perspective I’m likely not all that unique.
Somehow I’m reluctant to commit to something today that is supposed to represent me in perpetuity. There were passions I had as a teen that simply feel a tad outdated now. I loved ponies when I was small, and was a huge fan of Star Trek even up to at least ten years ago, I’m just not sure how far into the future I want to be remembered for those singular passions when I have so many more yet to explore. It comes down to that natural gap between forward moving change, and the sentimentality with which we all remember those things that contributed to our growth. That is why I relate to the tribe of folk who enthusiastically remix old passions into new forms. A friend once made me laugh with the comment that golfers would love to be buried on golf courses. At first I thought he was joking since I personally don’t golf, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. What incredible untapped potential for course owners to make golf courses more “green” by making them dual use. Why should golfing be any different from sailing when it comes to disposing of your remains in the environment you most enjoyed in life? And what a wonderful way to remember Uncle Bob: when putting your way through his favorite tee you dedicate each swing to your old friend. I’ve buried some of my parent’s jewelry in their backyard and even left a memento or two stuffed into the insulation in the attic to remain even after the house has passed to new owners. It was their favorite place so it seems more fitting to leave it there than to bury it with them in some remote cemetery where only their bones remain and not the memories they created. Besides, that way the walls will talk when time remixes what we’ve built today into the Tells of tomorrow.
This is a beautiful telling of the week long series of events surrounding a Japanese (Shinto) funeral. Despite having spent time in Japan, and being privileged enough to visit some amazing cemeteries, as gaijin such a level of participation in a culture’s traditions (along with weddings) is of course very rare. If you’re interested in a fictional tale that recounts similar cultural differences then you might enjoy an entertaining book called American Fuji . It is about an American professor who loses her job teaching English and eventually becomes employed at a Japanese “fantasy funeral” company. I find it comforting that there are so many ways to celebrate a person’s passing and yet our need to honor the dead in some way meaningful to us is universal. “Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere – everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we’re all living in different worlds because we’re on different continents.” –Philip Glass
There are so many times I’m grateful to the internet and its citizens for posting things I’d otherwise never see. This memorial is such a touching tribute to a woman I greatly admired. When I was small I always wanted to be an astronaut and still have a scrap book of many of the newspaper clippings I collected about the space program in the 60s and 70s. As many people can recall where they were when Lennon was shot or when the two towers fell, I still remember the day of the Challenger disaster and the eulogy given the crew by then President Regan. McAuliffe’s epitaph is something I would still like to aspire to. It reads, “She helped people. She laughed. She loved and is loved. She appreciated the world’s natural beauty. She was curious and sought to learn who we are and what the universe is about. She relied on her own judgment and moral courage to do right. She cared about the suffering of her fellow man. She tried to protect our spaceship Earth. She taught her children to do the same.” Even now these words make my eyes sting, and yet, strangely, the Fallen Astronaut memorial seems as cold and forgotten as space itself.
UPDATE: Listen to an astronaut (Eileen Collins, whose earliest memories are about her library’s section on aviation) .
I’ve learned so much after the fact from reading about death and grief practices it’s a marvel to me how little thought I gave the process until I was directly impacted by it. Maybe that’s the way we all deal with it, or not. Wendy recently sent me a quote from Ira Byock, a well-known and respected hospice doctor who has written and presented on the topic for patients and caregivers. This is his take,
“Often the term ‘good death’ is used to describe the goal of terminal care. It has the disadvantage of connoting something that is static and formulaic. Furthermore, it perpetuates the confusion between death -about which we know nothing- and dying, the personal process of living with progressive decline and impending demise. The phrase ‘dying well’ seems better suited to describe the positive end of life experience that people desire. in conceptualizing ‘dying well’ and the related notion of ‘wellness in dying’, it is not necessary -and would be misleading- to glorify the experience. Dying, even for those who attain a sense of wellness, is rarely easy and may, instead be arduous and unpleasant.”
Death, like birth, may involve struggle that we don’t expect. A painful, protracted, agonizing trauma. How does one prepare for that? Or maybe that’s why we instinctively chose not to think of it until it happens. We take birthing classes but devote little study to our inevitable departure. Maybe we just need death midwives as guides to help us with through the pain. (Although not directly related to dying well, the POV film is available on Netflix and the PBS website is beautifully structured resource of historical information on death practices I’ll continue to reference. Thanks Wendy!)
Spent a beautiful morning at the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery yesterday. The docents leading the tour were both such a wealth of information not only about the cemetery’s history (I was lucky enough to see the archives) and customs (all Muslum headstones must face Mecca), but they could be master gardeners as well for their deep knowledge of plants. The cemetery was opened in 1849 with a gift of ten acres from John Sutter with pioneer families planting wonderful gardens that fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Today it’s been restored by volunteers with historic gold rush era roses, native California plants, bulbs and flowering shrubs. With temperatures in the 70’s and the sun shining and seeing everyone out with their hoses and hoes it was a really beautiful scene and I took a few pictures to share.
They are really trying hard to turn this old cemetery into a park (since it is no longer used for burial—it’s full!), but not a park that focuses on expansive lawns because, as one tour guide said, “grass contributes nothing.” Instead they hope to provide food and refuge for birds and wildlife, cut down on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and provide a place for the community to gather, picnic, and enjoy nature in the heart of a very large city. I think conservation of old abandoned places is as important as preserving existing open space. Sometimes we lose site of the smaller spaces in our haste to save broad expanses of public land. Readily accessible inner city spaces are just as much in need of care for those who find it difficult to leave the city. I applaud the Old City Cemetery Committee for their dedication to this beautiful public resource.
Almost ten years ago now Bruce Sterling was talking about the green movement in design. Not many people were listening then, but he started Viridian and kept at it. I don’t always like his bombastic approach but I do admire him for his tenacity. Now every time you turn on the tv there is talk of the greening of America. Green burial is not design in the strict sense we’re used to, but it is a part of designing our environment responsibly and contributing to those ideals even in death. At the end of February KQED did a beautiful video segment on green burials and the effects of embalming. Their report reveals that due to our “casket consumption,” we bury more metal each year than what was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge along with 1.6 million tons of concrete that would pave a double lane highway from California to Phoenix. Wow. Each year. There’s another audio report here, on Good Dirt Radio which mentions land conservation, the legalities of home burial, and finding a green cemetery near you. Both sites contain links to green burial resources locally and around the country. Very handy stuff to bookmark. Trust me, we all will need it someday.
Cremation is also mentioned and they highlight the same spot that my friend John said I should visit, Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes. “The columbarium was designed by Julia Morgan and is open to the public. It consists of a labyrinth of little galleries and open air gardens. But the best part are the “library” rooms full of shelves full of urns shaped like books! What an amazing idea. I love sitting in rooms surrounded by books. But in these rooms, every book was a human life. While there I pondered what kind of book urn I might want to rest in. I think maybe an unassuming little volume tucked away in a corner near a cozy chair.” Another link between libraries and cemeteries. Now I know I said I like tiny spaces, but when it comes to books, I think I’d like to be the size of the OED on one of those fancy stands! How grand would that be? (Thanks John! Photo credit: KQED QUEST Flickr set)