Cities of the Dead

Posted: November 2, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I regularly ask my students to devote their time and attention to the crucial habit of reflection. In autumn, Nature herself asks us to reflect on death, and consider the ways that we allow death to coexist with life.

I am fortunate: most of the people I have ever loved are still on the earth. That will not always be so. Still, those that die are always present in our thoughts. And the many cultural traditions attached to the remembrance of the dead, The Day of the Dead among them, are necessary.

It seems appropriate to reflect upon the physical places and spaces reserved for death. The living must make these choices, since the dead cannot. Cemeteries tend to be lush and green, replete with old growth trees and acres of quiet elegance, and the habit of visiting and enjoying cemeteries as parklands is one of many ways humans have endeavored to practice philosophy. In “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries” Rebecca Greenfield writes, “It gives you a sense of the finiteness of your life, the preciousness of your life. Cemeteries are places that make us reflect upon not just the mortality of those who are buried there, but on our own mortality.” Recently, I drove past Rosehill Cemetery in North Chicago, twenty acres of which had been re-purposed to include a nature preserve including biking and walking trails. The permeable border between life and death made manifest in this place confronts our need to understand and connect with the dead.

arlington-cemetery-615

Moreover, cemeteries are a lasting testament to the life of a people and a place. I was inspired by the tangible persistence evidenced in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Like others, I visited Arlington national cemetery (when staying with my brother) and was moved by the solemn changing of the guards at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The devotion and dedication paid to the loss of one who represents countless others: a somber and poignant experience. And nearly every tourist in New Orleans considers visiting the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, home to Marie Laveau’s tomb, to entertain the notion that the dead might be able to intervene on our behalf.

Human must grapple with loss and death. The recent discovery of an early burial cave was a tremendously exciting archaeological and anthropological find because it evidenced a shift toward the ritualization of death. More recently, an idea to replace coffins with seed pods in order to create lush “memorial forests” appeals to the human desire to see new life spring forth, perhaps abating our grief in some small way.

Cemeteries remain among the few silent spaces, solemn and lovely, inviting us to remember those loved and lost, and to consider life’s inherent brevity, and attendant beauty.

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