Friday, April 26, 2019

Graveyards, Though Quiet, Speak to Life

Don't tarry

Gregg Allman and his brother, Duane.

I have a predilection for walking through old graveyards, for there's a certain calmness enveloping a cemetery that can't be reproduced anywhere else. Never do I feel more in tune with history and my heritage. 

Because graveyards provide a tranquil, pensive experience, I've never feared such places, not even at night. Fear of the graveyard is a manifestation of our dread of death. By avoiding a cemetery, we avert facing our own mortality. But I loved graveyards long before such concepts entered my head. 

As a small boy, I would explore the cemetery across from our house. It seemed a gray, white and green amusement park, with its multiplicity of small stone shapes through which to navigate. When I got bigger, I hunted lizards in a church cemetery where several of my ancestors are buried. You can tell a lot about the deceased, and their heirs, by where and how they are laid to rest. 

Racial, class and religious segregation prevail more in cemeteries than almost anywhere else. How pathetically ugly when families dig up their departed to escape a graveyard's integration. Some rich people wear their wealth to the end, with gaudy crypts that tower over other plots. But all families can be fiercely clannish and property-conscious. Walled family plots seem to be saying, "Hey, we may not be well-off, but by God, this speck of land is eternally the Jones's, and you'd better not trespass or we'll haunt you." 

Who's remembered and Who's not 

It's also clear who's revered by their descendants and who's not, as nicely trimmed plots bor-der others strewn with weeds. I can't help but laugh when old relatives insist that they've purchased the "perpetual care" plan. Cemeteries display the eccentric and the tacky. Heart-shaped double-tombstones send the saccharine meter soaring. Stranger still is the graves sporting photos; often it's of an unshaven, hung-over Uncle Ray — just the image he would want us to remember.

Always noteworthy are the souls providing messages. My favorite such engraving was from an old lady who wrote, "Hi there. I knew you would come!" More ambitious are taped messages from beyond the grave, heard at the push of a button. Sadly, sexism reigns supreme. While men are commemorated with long lists of achievements chiseled into mini-monuments, women's graves typically mention only their husbands and children. 

Some of my most memorable graveyard experiences involve departed rock stars. To find the plot of Allman Brothers Band members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in Macon's Rosehill Cemetery, I lagged behind a couple of hippies. Sure enough, the late rockers' headstones had engraved mushrooms — and the hippies lit up when they got there. The graves were atop a small natural amphitheater ringed by railroad tracks, a wonderful place to have a concert. 

There's also the grave of B-52s' guitarist Ricky Wilson in Oconee Hills Cemetery in Athens, with its unique pyramid tombstone. 

Barry Oakley
Jim Morrison's resting place, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, is the most enchanting I've experienced. Old graves of every architectural style sit under gorgeous trees. My friends and I found Morrison's grave by following the arrows and signs penciled on other tombs ("Jim this way," and "Lizard King next right"). It turned out to be a little piece of graffiti-scrawled concrete dwarfed by larger crypts and swarming with stoned French teenagers.

The headstone was missing, and we laughed ourselves silly later at the thought of fried granola-heads making off with "Jim's head, man." I'd like to be buried in a placid setting, perhaps at a spot of special significance in my life. I'm glad that my great-great-grandfather chose to be planted under his favorite oak tree, near the place where he went fox-hunting. 

A cemetery is a future as well as the past. It reminds us to get on with life and do all the things we have been dreaming about. The older I get, the less impressive are those granite inscriptions and the more urgent the will to achieve my goals. 

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