Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dealing With Death

 April 20, 2011

There is a cemetery. 

So many of my journal notes seem to start with that line. Cemeteries hold a special power over me – I rarely pass one without stopping, or making a note to return later, perhaps when no one else is around.

I often attribute that power to the simple fact that so many people I’ve known and loved inhabit them, and by extension, all cemeteries are filled with the loved ones of others.  Each stone tells the story – some more decipherable than others – of the tragedy. And, in spite of any belief in the circular nature of the life/death cycle on this planet, to me, any death is a tragedy, and grief, guilt, anger, despair, fear and disbelief are part and parcel. Or, perhaps, as it has been pointed out from time to time, I tend to walk on the dark side of things.

There is a cemetery in northwest Arkansas that seems dedicated to children. Something in the very layout, the placement on a little rise, speaks of it. And the stones finish the story, many without saying a word. There is one in particular that draws me back, over and over. It is a small rectangle of sandstone with the hand of a child chiseled at the base, as if reaching out of the ground.

Hands appear frequently on gravestones – pointing to heaven, clasping the hand of a spouse – but this one is different. As I kneel in the grass under ancient cedars and fumble with camera and tripod, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the hand was carved by a grieving parent in a desperate attempt to maintain contact, to have something to touch, when they knelt in the same grass, but with purposes different than mine.

Within the same afternoon, it is possible to encounter two other icons of death. One, on a lonely stretch of mountain top dirt road, is powerful because of the surprise of encountering it in deep grass, out of the context of a cemetery, and the stark whiteness of the catholic imagery.  Hiking through the Ozarks, that color is usually reserved for bones.
I’ve never seen anyone else stop there, but I have to. A nod to the family and the young man whose life ended there in an accident a few years ago.

Death is not reserved for humans. On the same beautiful Spring day, when violets, bellwort, trillium, blue star, wild hyacinth, mandrake, phlox, and orange puccoon are begging for attention, walk a bit farther, and find this perplexing display. Did the coyote, along with five of his friends and relatives, fail to read the sign and paid the price? Was this a personal feud with the landowner? Is the killer showing off his skill to passersby, or warning off other animals: cross this line and die! I decided not to stop and ask.

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