Monday, March 02, 2015

`Dust, Dust, Dust'

“. . . cemeteries are for me like bookshops; I find it difficult to resist the temptation to enter them and linger awhile.” 

It was April or early May, and the snow was going or gone. A low wall of fieldstones surrounded the cemetery in Schoharie County, N.Y. The epitaphs on the earliest markers had been erased by time and acid rain, and some were tilted by the freeze-buckled earth. The lambs carved on the stones of children were worn headless. The grass, mostly red and white clover, hadn’t yet been mowed and was thick with phlox. Birds sang and the air was fresh. Life felt bountiful in the presence of so many dead. 

“. . . I find it strange that some hurry past cemeteries either without a second look or even with a shudder. Meditation on the transience of life, intermittent rather than continuous and rejuvenating rather than paralysing, is important for achieving equanimity. And there is no better aid to such meditation, I find, than a good graveyard.” 

Like Theodore Dalrymple in And Death Shall Have His Dominion” (a good allusion to a lousy poem), I seek out cemeteries; in particular, the remote, rural, often untended sort, though a sprawling urban cemetery, vast enough to have neighborhoods and thoroughfares, offers pleasures of another sort. Isaac Bashevis Singer reverses the cemetery-as-city metaphor in the final lines of his story “Neighbors” (A Crown of Feather and Other Stories, 1973): 

“From time to time I looked out the window. The snow descended sparsely, peacefully, as if in contemplation of its own falling. The short day neared its end. The desolate park became a cemetery. The buildings on Central Park South towered like headstones. The sun was setting on Riverside Drive, and the water of the reservoir reflected a burning wick. The radiator near which I sat hissed and hummed: `Dust, dust, dust.’ The singsong penetrated my bones together with the warmth. It repeated a truth as old as the world, as profound as sleep.” 

Dalrymple visits Père-Lachaise, a cemetery at least as interesting as a good museum or bookshop. He notes some of the celebrity graves – Balzac, Delacroix, Wilde – not to mention Colette, Apollinaire and Borrah Minevitch -- But reminds us: “. . . most of the tombs in Père-Lachaise, as in every other cemetery, are of people who led ordinary lives.” George Eliot honored such people, people like you and me, in her goodbye to Dorothea Brooke, in the final paragraph of Middlemarch:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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