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Is the Cemetery a Dying Institution?

  • Blog Post by: Rhonda Hayes
  • February 9, 2014 - 10:07 AM

I don’t see dead people. That’s because I go out of my way to avoid seeing dead bodies, shunning the funerals of all but a few. Since I ran terrified out of my grandmother’s service as a nine year old, I’ve been averse to all aboveground death rituals.

But gimme a good cemetery and I’m happy to wander and wonder for hours on end, and oh, I hope I have my camera. While I’m away for the winter, I rent a small apartment across the street from historic Colonial Cemetery in Savannah. I trace the tabby walkways three or four times a day while walking the dog, day in and out, no matter the weather. And every day I see something new.

Mary Ann, wife of Moses.  Frances and Constance, sisters, buried side by side. Eugene, barely arrived, from County Kerry.

A tomb’s brickwork pattern plush with deep moss. A mockingbird that perches upon the same filigreed stone. Pale green lichen on rotting marble that forms a face. Sad, sacred beauty.

So when that nice Nordic-looking lady on the TV commercial tells all her friends about cremation and how it’s the hottest thing going on, I get a bit steamed. Yeah, I get it; green burials make sense in my head, but not in my heart.

Misty morning at Colonial Cemetery, Savannah GA

I hate to think of the eventual demise of the cemetery.

Unlike some I’m ok to ponder immortality and roam among the tombstones ruminating upon the fragility and unfairness of life. I like the idea of an open-air historical archive of everyday folk even if some memorials are grander than others. Cemeteries are sculpture gardens with funerary art reflecting the attitudes of the time. They are botanical gardens where flowers flourish and rare species can rest undisturbed. They are places of pilgrimage and some of the prettiest parks in the world.

But then they don’t do death like they used to. Modern cemeteries, sleek as the uniform polished granite grave markers, lacking in art or drama are arranged for mowing efficiency over sentimentality. Worse when they only allow those flat markers people have to punctuate with their flowers stuck in cones at even intervals.

No disrespect is meant.

I understand. There are too many people nowadays. Land is scarce. That was already the case when Colonial Cemetery was active in the mid-1800’s. They can identify around 600 graves, but it is known that around 9000 people were buried on these few acres, many victims of the yellow fever epidemic. When I stray from the paved paths the ground is sunken in areas. In others, the ground has a strange, spongy feel to it.

Those thousands have no individual stone, but they have a place. Through the years thousands of people walk through here and for a moment, think about them, and that’s good.

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