Tonight at dusk, E and I rode our bikes over to Downtown North, a neighborhood located between our own and downtown proper. E stopped to drop in on a friend at his friend’s dad’s studio, while I went on solo, and pedaled over to nearby Old Gray Cemetery to ride and to think a bit.
Frankly, most modern cemeteries and associated post-modern American funerary practices leave me cold. So much about the way we “do” bereavement in our culture just seems bloodless and, well, dead to me. That’s one reason among many why for now at least, there is still no public, physical marker anywhere making note of Henry’s 18 years with us.
This monument marks the grave of Lennae Davis, born on October 17 of 1902, and died September 24 of 1904.
However, Old Gray, along with some of the cemeteries I’ve visited in France, New Orleans and Low Country, South Carolina stir something in me that I can’t quite explain. Rather than being a “final resting place,” some cemeteries aren’t final at all. Instead they radiate a raw, everpresent and powerful sense of life, as defined by grief.
What I see when I visit Old Gray is not a reflection of the tidy, polite, time-limited “stages of grief” paradigm we ask the bereaved to observe today. No, the grief that’s visible everywhere in Old Gray is neither tidy nor polite. It’s howling and whirling and wailing everywhere you look, with a lush overabundance of tactile grief and death imagery tilting this way and that, in every direction.
Old Gray at dusk tonight
There are no neat rows in this cemetery, and there have been no attempts to stifle death’s ripping burn with boxy sameness and conformity. Instead, Old Gray is a place where grief has full sail, and where any attempt to neaten up the death of a husband or child would be futile. This place doesn’t ask your permission to let it all out in one beautifully marbled scream.
This is the grave of Lillian Gaines, born in 1868 and died in 1876. With this heartbreaking monument to grief, her parents made certain that that their pain in losing a beloved little girl with a bow in her hair would be as raw today as it was the day they buried her. There are no “stages of grief” visible here… No attempt to pretend that losing their little girl wasn’t as terrible as it really was – then, and always.
While nowadays, I generally try to sidestep any reminders of death and dying in order to avoid being pulled back under, somehow, placing myself inside Old Gray’s vortex of primal grief actually feels cathartic to me. Outside Old Gray’s big, iron gates, I must now observe the expectations of those around me, and do what I can to avoid making anyone uncomfortable with any display of my grief. Every day I do my best to be polite But here, in this place, I know that should I want to fall on the ground and tear at my hair, beat my chest and wail for my son, I would be in good company; I know that I would not be the first mother or wife to do these things within this secluded 13 acres in the middle of the city. I can feel those women all around me, and they understand.