Saturday, February 11, 2012

Death - A Love Story

For this month of February, I present to you a labor of love that has totally moved people – literally so. I recently met a woman who, as a volunteer, participated in the excavation and moving of about 250 bodies from a cemetery. Her great-grandparents were among the exhumed.

Occasionally in my Cemetery Travels, I’ll come across a situation that is just too weird for words, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. This is one such situation. I don’t profess to find answers to life’s little mysteries – I just present them to you. If you find a way to wrap them in a neat package of understanding, all the better.

The woman in question was working with a group of archeologists who were carefully and respectfully removing bodies as part of a cemetery renovation. The bodies were reinterred on the other side of the cemetery. If the coffins and concrete crypts were intact, these were moved. If not, the bones and other remains and artifacts (clothing, jewelry, etc.) were boxed and buried in large concrete vaults. Along with gravestones and other markers, all this was moved to the other side of the cemetery.

Probably the most astonishing things she showed me were video still images of her interaction with her great grandparents’ remains. It was unclear whether she was as intimately involved with any other exhumations. She had an image of her grandfather’s skeleton lying inside his mostly-disintegrated wooden coffin. The photograph was taken from above, looking down into the grave. Either the coffin lid had disintegrated or was removed, and one could see his skeletal torso, head, and shoulders as he lied face up grinning at his new fans. She had another image of her holding his skull. 

At the time I thought it was awfully weird and now I wonder if I could ever do such a thing. Obviously, one must become somewhat detached from the familial relationship. Her experience was certainly a labor of love, one she felt needed to be done. I didn’t think to ask if she knew them while they were alive. I certainly appreciate her candor and possible need for personal involvement, but the whole scenario is rather odd. I don’t know that I’ve ever run across anything  like it in my fifteen years of Cemetery Travels.

Animal bones found in a cemetery
Finding bones in a cemetery is always a startling thing - even though you know full well you're standing on a field of bones. Most likely, however, the ones you find are the non-human kind. The photo at left is my friend Patricia holding bones of two animals found together in an abandoned cemetery. Some people even go looking for such things! I once met a woman met who makes jewelry out of tiny animal bones she finds in the woods behind an old cemetery. Apparently when owls gobble up tiny animals, they regurgitate a ball of indigestible waste (an “owl pellet”) which is comprised of the bones of their prey. (Who knew?) She hunts for these little crusty balls of regurgitated animal bits, picks them apart, and uses the bones to make lovely earrings, pendants, and necklaces.

But I stray from my story; back to the cemetery excavation. The cemetery volunteer woman had photos of coffins and vaults in various states of being unearthed. Caskets sticking out of a wall of dirt is just an odd thing to see – it’s as if you're looking at a cross-section of the cemetery ground cut about twelve feet down, the ground a honeycomb of coffins. Then she showed me photos of herself holding a section of her great-grandmother’s spinal column. Several vertebrae were fused, so she hypothesized that her ancestor had a spine problem when she was alive. 

Alive. It’s really a lot different than being a box of bones, isn’t it? Our volunteer’s love story makes me wonder how you can bring yourself to touch your ancestors’ bones - especially if you had known them when they were alive. I have to admire her strength. 

Would I have kept my great-grandmother’s wedding ring after slipping it off her boney white finger instead of re-burying the ring with the rest of her skeletal remains? I really don’t know. Would you? It seems like such a simple question, but really it’s a very, very deep one - a Valentine's Day question of love, commitment, and respect.

On my way home, my car stereo was playing a song by the band Bright Eyes, called, “We are Nowhere, and Its Now.” The haunting, halting lyrics went:

I haven't been gone very long but it feels like a lifetime ...  
Stars that clear have been dead for years, but the idea lives on.”