Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living with the Dead

On my way home from the shops this afternoon, I wander into the local cemetery, or crematorium, as they call them here. I used to walk through this cemetery, often, after home visits in the neighbourhood, and I have missed it. When I lived in the village in Mexico, the graveyard was the only place I could go to be alone, and I took refuge there, daily, sitting among the plastic flowers and tissue-wreathed crosses with my journal and a pen. Here, in England, the world outside my little flat is noisy and crowded, my solitude penetrated by the sputtering of car engines, the pounding of footsteps against my ceiling, country and western music blaring from the fellow who lives in the flat next door. Sometimes I long for the wide open spaces of the states—big roads, big yards—lots of room to roam without intruding upon another person’s domain. So I have come to sit for a moment, at Croydon Crematorium, where I share space only with the dead.

I feel peaceful here, seated on a wooden bench, my hands gloved against the cold. Old gravestones, toppled and worn, are interspersed with marbled monuments, their etchings elegant and deep. This cemetery allows people to plant colourful plants and leave flowers at their loved one’s graves—not like my dad’s cemetery, with its symmetrical stones lying flat against the earth, designed for the convenience of riding lawn mowers, who shear the grass in summertime. These graves seem more natural in their uniqueness, like the people who inhabit them once were. Some of them are covered by a layer of coloured rocks, framed by silver incense urns, and I picture weeping relatives at these tombs, their grieving somehow soothed by the pungent aroma of smoke as it rises to the sky. Others show fresh tulips, resting in plastic vases, next to their monuments. Still others display green plants, slightly wilted by the cold, rooted in black dirt plots, bordered in stone.

There are graves of children who died too young, and graves of ninety year olds who died soon after their partners passed. Across the paved path, in perfect rows, stand the gravestones of young soldiers who died in WWII. The English do not seem comfortable with the word death. Their stones bear anachronisms like ‘fell asleep’ and ‘taken from us.’ Their etchings are wordier than ours, poetic, almost, with long descriptions of how much their people were loved, and proclamations that God must have needed them in heaven, more than they were needed, here. It is strange how we use kind words to soften the ugliness of death. It is like a mask we don to spare those around us from witnessing the full measure of our loss. Perhaps such gentle words serve as a balm for our wounds, as well.

I’ve found my own ways to soothe my grief. I’ve sought the aid of mediums, here, where they are abundant, and work without the stigma attached to them in the United States. I have attended a spiritualist church, here, too, in hopes the ‘presenter’ would find, among the souls whose loved ones are in the audience, a message from Mom or Debra to me.

I wanted to have a chat with them, to find out why they had to leave so soon, and to let them know how much they were missed. But the sessions did not accomplish what I had wished. They could not fill the hole in my heart, or make me feel like part of a family again. I still dream of them, at night. So maybe it is only through my dreams that we can meet.

In every country I have visited, I have found myself drawn to their cemeteries, where I read the names and dates of those who lived and died and are memorialized, there. In Wales, the dead lay below moss-covered tombstones in old church yards, close to where their loved ones worship and pray.

Sweden’s grave sites are clean and orderly and sleek, like the country’s quiet streets. I visited the grave site of Jim Morrison, of The Doors, in Paris, the resting place of Chopin and Oscar Wilde and many other famous folks. For years, the relatives of families buried in that cemetery tried to have Jim Morrison’s body removed. They grew weary of the scruffy young folks flocking to his site, where they smoked dope and broke whiskey bottles and had sex atop his tomb. His grave is surrounded, now, by a chain link fence, and patrolled by a private guard, yet people continue to leave their offerings of liquor and pills next to his stone—a twisted tribute to the tools of his untimely death.

My mother never asked for much, but she did make explicit her desire to have her remains interred with my dad. I asked her, through the years, if she was certain she wanted to spend eternity with the man who made her life so tumultuous and crazed. But she loved him, with all his wild faults, and it was her wish that she rest at his side. I wasn’t able to spare her from suffering in her last few months of life, but I am happy I could place her where she wanted to be, in death.

Like many cities in Europe, Paris lacks the space to bury their dead, and the plots are rented as family plots, with one body piled on top of another inside them. People in England, too, tend to cremate their loved ones, adding only a name, instead of a body, to an already established monument. For some reason these monuments are important to us. It is as if the names of those we loved, immortalized in stone, grant some kind of final meaning to their time on earth, an assurance that their impact on us will be remembered for generations to come.

My sister, Debra, never wanted to be buried. A diabetic since the age of 14, with few of the customary complications, she often referred to her body as a miracle of science, and she hoped to have it donated for research. But an earlier infectious illness made her ineligible for donation, and shortly before she died, I had to tell her she would be cremated instead. She took the news as she had taken most disappointments in her life—in silence, and without protest.

On a cool winter evening in Florida, my sister slipped away, and Mom and I watched them lift her body from the hospice bed. Within a week they called me to pick her up—her presence reduced to three boxes of ashes—one for Ben, her son, one for Dennis, her twin, and the other one for my mother and me. A year later, I added my mother’s ashes to my shelf.

Debra wanted to visit a foreign country, and it was one of her last wishes before she died, but her time was too short, and she was too weak. So I brought her ashes here, to England, where they sit upon my tiny mantelpiece. I still cannot look at pictures of the women I have lost, but the urn is a comfort to me, somehow, and I am glad that I have her with me, here.

It is almost dark, when the crematorium closes its gates, and I must enter into the stream of noise and life, again. There is quiet among the dead, but a bit of sadness too, a sense of missed opportunities, perhaps, a swell of lingering regrets. I walk the path past toppled stones and marbled monuments, and board the bus that will carry me home, to the world of the living, in my little flat, footsteps on my ceiling and country music blaring, its lilting rhythms a blessing to me.