I like to walk through cemeteries. They contain condensed versions of each personís life. There are humble stones whose writings have weathered to obscurity, and in some graveyards mausoleums stand in contrast, with locked gates. When I lived with my brother in Des Moines, after they diagnosed him with cancer, my cemetery of choice was Glendale, just down the street. At one entrance is a Masonic section, at the other, G.A.R. Civil War veterans with their wives, and the abbey. A pond with a fountain attracts ducks and geese and their green droppings. Their claws wear away brown patches in the surrounding grass. People park by the water and flick bread to these birds. To the west is the Jewish section with a Holocaust memorial.
The stones wind through hills. As I walked through one day, the diamond bark of a tree caught my attention. I connected it by touch to the Green Ash that grew from the cave west of my old home. That Ash held seeds. Others do not. My mom stored preserves in the cave, and it served as a survival shelter during thunderstorms. My dad led us down into its mustiness when the tornado sirens roared in Corydon. I remember my fear.
As the years went by, the roots of the Green Ash gnarled through the caveís walls and water filled in a few feet deep, leaving it a poor choice for shelter. In photographs of it, the cave looks a bit like a mausoleum, with its cement crown. Though the cave is now collapsed, the Green Ash remains. In Norse mythology, the world tree is an Ash, considered holy and congregated by the gods.
I do not consider cemeteries morbid. They are peaceful places. And not just because the dead cannot argue with you.
Though my wife and I did take my mother-in-law to see Stoneking Cemetery near Williamson, a small rural plot with local lore, for her birthday one year. Because of the legends surrounding it, and her interest in the idea of haunting, we thought she would enjoy the tour.
Much of its reputation comes from Joseph Stonekingís marker, which bears the inscription, ďDear children as you pass by / as you are now, so once was I / as I am now, so soon youíll be / prepare for death and follow me.Ē I am of two minds concerning this verse. The first is that the address, directly to children (if he is referring to literal children) and the inversion that Stoneking wished us to imagine is somewhat disturbing, in its intent. The second: that itís a reality check, and a positive one, at that. When I first read it, as we stood in the overgrown grass near sundown, the reality of this inevitable fate cast a shadow as real as the one arching through the hedgerow to the west.
Iíve come to call this realization looking at the world through the cemetery eye. And itís not negative. I see it as similar to the third eye of some Eastern cultures.
For example, when the world gets heavy, itís good sometimes to accept that it will pass. What you accumulate, especially in narrow monetary terms, can only build you a fancier tomb. The only hands that can hold these temporary things will cease to grasp, and we must take our place, physically, with the dead.
But you can comprehend the situation with your third eyeóthe real condition that we tend to forgetóand the removal of the physical body in your mind is a necessary step. It releases you from the burdens of life without releasing you from life. It helps us to see this: that most of what we consider important is nonsense, and as permanent as a blade of grass.
When I lived in my original home next to the cave, Richardson Cemetery sits to the east, and in the evening the setting sun lit different gravestones, like playing a piano with light instead of touch. Each remainder of that personís life left an imprint in my eyes, if I closed them, as though having stared at the sun for too long. In that cemetery lies the remains of my great-great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, and Professor Churchill, who lived in our house before my grandparentsóhe has a fish named after him, as well as the biology building at the University of South Dakota. His brother, who collapsed and died at age eighteen when he was playing basketball, is buried there. As are infants. My brother is now buried there with my grandparents, and itís where my body will be placed, eventually.
Much of decision-making is looking at the same exact circumstance and deciding what we value.
Our cave was a shelter that looked like a grave. The world tree collapsed it. Genius has been described as seeing connections most cannot make. A fair assessment of insanity is seeing something for what it is not. It requires discrimination to tell the two apart. Walking through cemeteries helps me sort out what is real and what is nonsense.