Wednesday, September 8, 2010


   Under the watchful gaze of crumbling saints and baby-faced cherubs, you hurry down a path lined with mausoleums.  Eventually, you pass crops of headstones casting long, narrow shadows in the moonlight.  Each engraved with the epitaph of the dead person's life.  You run past sunken graves and dying flowers, hoping that the sound you hear is just the wind and you're trying to shake the feeling that something is following close behind you.
   Maybe you've never taken a  midnight stroll through your local cemetery.  But if you have ever set foot in one, you've likely felt a hint of fear and uneasiness that is their legacy.  Maybe you were attending a funeral of someone dear and close to you, touring graveyards or simply fleeing things that go bump in the night.
   Whatever your reason for strolling among the tombstones, you probably felt something noteworthy about the experience-something different from all the other spaces and places that fill our lives.  After all, graveyards are the final resting place for many of our dead.  People say their last goodbyes there, sometimes returning year after year to leave flowers or say a few words.
  No matter where we travel in the world, cemeteries are silent and solemn settings.  Whether the grounds are finely manicured or left to the weeds, graveyard exist as the place where the living contemplate many mysteries, traumas and heartbreaks associated with death.
   Why are many people afraid of graveyards?  Is it the thought of all those decaying bodies (zombies) under the dirt or the idea of an old crusty are coming out of the grass to grab your foot and pull you into their final resting spot with them?  Or is it something deeper? 

   Cats often receive a bum rap for hanging out in cemeteries, but can anyone blame them?  Graveyards offer a cat everything they could ask for: all the best spots to nap, trees to use as scratching posts and a selection of small animals to prey on.  What more could your averages sized cat want with your dead relatives soul when there are many squirrels and birds around to occupy their time?
   To cats, graveyards may be another place to sleep away the afternoon, but to we humans, they represent the mystery and the outrage of mortality.  Whether we like it or not we're all going to die.  You may think you've accepted that fact, but it's an issue humanity has struggled with for ages.  Unable to avoid it, we've tried to figure out what lies beyond its doors.  Will we live forever in a golden paradise, be reincarnated as a cow (or a cat that spends all afternoon in a cemetery) or simply cease to exist?  We've pined for understanding since the times of the great pyramids and stared into the eyes of guillotined heads, hoping to catch a glimpse of something other than the emptiness of nonexistence.
   Fear exists as a response to stimuli that threatens our survival as a species.  We're programmed to fight or run from anything that might cause death, and we approach death with this same attitude.  We flee from it every day by distancing it from our thoughts and lives.  In most parts of the world, we've handed the duties of interring the dead over to morticians, which limits our intimacy with death.
   Fighting death is trickier. To avoid staring down mortality, we've redefined what death is.  We choose to see dying not as something our bodies eventually do, but something that eventually happens to our bodies.  We cast ourselves as the victim of death, which is the reason grim reapers and other death-stalking beings permeate our beliefs.  If death is a natural counterpart to life, there's nothing we can do about it in the end.  But if it's something inflicted on us by an outside force, then perhaps we have a fighting chance.
   Society often sets aside the angel of death and instead chooses to practice what some people call "the deconstruction of mortality."  That is, we break down the insurmountable mystery of death into smaller pieces we can digest easily: biological functions, diseases and mental dysfunctions.  If prayer or bribing the reaper doesn't work, maybe multiple organ transplants will.
   Pray and think about death all you want, but it's still going to happen at some time. 

   Disposing of a body isn't difficult.  Bury it in the forest, cremate it or just leave it out for the vultures--a rite Zoroastrains in India still practice.  Not only are these methods cheaper than buying a fancy casket and a cemetery plot, but they also allow "Mother Earth" to reclaim the decaying material faster.  The use of stone mausoleums, coffins and embalming only slows down the decomposition process.
   But then again, burials aren't really about the dead--they're about the living.  We do our best to stave off some of the bad properties of death.  And while immortality isn't an option, tombstones and stone monuments serve as long-lasting markers of the life that was.  Aunt Betty may be out of your life for good, but a slab of engraved granite will serve as a reminder that she existed.  Cemetery stonework also serves to encourage a sacred atmosphere, enforcing notions of afterlife and further establishing the site as a kind of sacred place between life and death.
   We humans fear death, yet we work hard to maintain hallowed spaces where the dead are memorialized and at least partially preserved.  On top of that, we heap religions full of resurrection prophecies and thousands of years' worth of superstitions, folktales and ghost stories.  We're constantly repressing our feelings about death or magnifying them to tremendous proportions.  Maybe you avoid cemeteries and nursing homes, or actively try to speak to the dead through TV psychic mediums-either way, you're striving to avoid the real relationship that exists between life and death.
  We've poured a lot of sacrament, superstition and fear into our graveyards, which makes for quite a powerful atmosphere.  Not only do graveyards play on past memories of loss, they also invoke potentially potent themes of supernatural terror.  It's not just horror movies that contribute to this frightening reputation.  Cemetery preservation groups and historical societies sometime get in on the action with haunted tours.
   In more extreme cases, people actually suffer from colmetrophobia, the fear of graveyards.  The condition involves a heightened, unrealistic fear of graveyards that actively interferes with a person's life.  But unless walking past a cemetery makes your heart race, your fear probably doesn't qualify as a phobia.
   For the most part, the only things you really have to fear in graveyards are collapsing tombstones and monuments.  Besides that, living, breathing humans are responsible for more graveyard assaults than all the vampires, zombies and ghouls combined.