Yesterday I walked through the cemetery. It was so beautiful, tranquil. It was early evening and there was hardly anyone there.
I passed a family plot that was empty. It was huge and very prominently positioned. There was not a single grave in it yet. This family thought that it was extremely important to have their final resting place ready though. There was space for so many of them. So many people, now living, who would end up there. But I thought about the wives and husbands who had married into this, presumably prominent family. I suppose they would also be buried there. How did they feel about that? Would they miss their family of origin. Would they prefer to be buried with their brothers and sisters instead of with their in-laws? Would their final resting be reduced to those awkward family dinners? Would they lie next to the mother in laws who snubbed them? And if they did make a fuss and want to be buried somewhere else, would their spouses join them? I would imagine that taking a stand like that would cause too much trouble in-life for most people to bother about their placement in the afterlife.
There were also the smaller, more traditional husband and wife graves – often with one spouse buried and the other one going about living their lives, knowing that soon they would end up in that empty plot. Some of the deceased spouses had passed away some time ago though. What is the widow or widower doing now? For their sake I hope they have found love again. But what happens if they have fallen so deeply in love again that it would be a betrayal to their new love to rest beside their deceased spouse? Would their current love have to attend a funeral and see them buried next to what would now be a past flame? And just because someone loves again, it does not make the first marriage less significant, less important, less real. Life has simply kept going for one of them. Yet, were I the deceased spouse, and somehow could know what went on after my death, I would not want to be left alone in my grave for two while the love of my life decides to be buried elsewhere.
When I worked at the Whyte Museum, we told a sanitized version of a married couple of painters. Part of the story was of Catherine Whyte’s life after her husband past away. The narrative went something like this. “After Peter passed away, Catherine dedicated herself once again to travelling, painting and the community”. In other words, she became alive again. Alive in life more than she was before. At this point another staff member whispered to me – Peter was an alcoholic, that’s why she had so much energy after he passed away. She didn’t have to take care of him anymore.
Catherine didn’t have to carry the burden of loving someone who couldn’t love themselves. Or didn’t have to be in a relationship where the love itself had passed long ago. I don’t know what the situation was, because the whisper in my ear is not the documented history of this couple’s lives. It is the reality that got washed away in the name of legacy.
As I continued walking through the cemetery, there were two white haired ladies on a metal bench. They were just sitting there, gazing at a grave. They seemed comfortable in their contemplation. Simply having a moment, in no rush to be anywhere else. Presumably they were thinking about their loved one buried beneath them. But if I were them, I would also be thinking about my own mortality as I gazed at the ground covered a lost loved one. My perception of them as being comfortable in that moment could have been an error. Not many people are comfortable with the reality that we will one day disappear. We too will be underground, or scattered, or our remains will be moved once the lease of the grave site expires and our relatives no longer remember us or can no longer afford the luxury of honouring the past. But I hope I was right. I hope that somehow in old age, people become more comfortable with their mortality, that they are at peace with knowing they will join their friends and family members underground.
The tranquility of the graves and mourners was rudely interrupted by life. A runner passed me breathing loudly with headphones in his ears. I sometimes jog in this cemetery too. It’s beautiful. There are lots of paths and no traffic. This man was taking advantage of a beautiful public space to improve his health. Who can blame him? This is also what a cemetery like this is for. Yet his intense breathing, his rapid footsteps, the energy emanating from his cardio felt rude. It felt like life was brashly interrupting death.
For some reason, the families on bikes, waiting at the side of the path in the cemetery for their kids to catch up felt like less of an intrusion. The kids were still learning to keep up with their parents on their bikes. They were struggling with the uneven altitude of the cemetery. Somehow the children, so new to life, new to this planet, fit in more with the cemetery. They were closer to the realm of the non-living having so recently been conceived. They were new to life, new to the planet. They were biking to discover the world, rather than jogging for the sake of exercise – perhaps for the sole purpose of prolonging life.
Then there were the planes flying over the piercing blue sky above. The cemetery is below a route to the airport, a new change that many neighbours have complained about. I looked up at the planes on this beautiful day and saw one of them flying straight up. It looked like there was no lateral motion whatsoever – it was simply going straight up, the white exhaust creating a straight line below it. I worried for the plane. I thought – wow that looks strange – I hope it’s alright. I hope it’s not being hijacked. I hope that it’s trajectory is intentional and not usurped by someone wanting death for its passengers. I don’t know why this thought passed my mind as I saw the plane flying vertical. I was quite a morbid thought to have, in a cemetery on the first nice day of spring this year.
The plane kept flying up – up towards heaven if there is one. It was helping the living keep living. Helping those living see loved ones, or visit new places, or study new things, or complete business deals. The passengers in that plane were not thinking that down below, wandering through a cemetery was a woman looking up at them, contemplating life.