Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monuments to Life, Not Death

A living room with a view -- of the cemetery. (Cyril Burns photo)

Not very many kids came trick-or-treating at our house.

To a young child, logic never prevailed. My sisters and I never realized it was because there was a gas station on one side of our house, a dentist on the other, an alley in the back and a highway across the front.

We didn't exactly live in a residential area.

That would have made great sense when trying to figure out why there were few knocks on our door each Oct. 31. But what made the most sense to our young minds was what we saw out the kitchen window every time we did the dishes -- the cemetery.

We thought kids were afraid to come to our house across the highway from Mount Horeb (Wis.) Union Cemetery, but we couldn't imagine what was so frightening about the place. It wasn't full of dead people, as our friend liked to point out. It was full of people who used to live.

My parents subtly introduced us to life solely by taking us on walks through the cemetery. There was the teen-age boy who was the first person buried in the cemetery in the 1800s; it wasn't uncommon for kids that young to die of diseases that are easily cured now, Mom said. There was another teen-age boy who died of a heart attack playing basketball; from that we learned that life is full of the unexpected -- good or bad.

Sometimes our parents or baby sitter would stop at the graves of people they knew and tell us something about them. Not every single one, of course, but it gave me the feeling that to every headstone there was a name, to every name there was a life.

But they weren't always deep, introspective walks through the cemetery. On the contrary. The place was a great playground. Plastic flowers everywhere, rabbits and gophers tearing up the ground. And in case you're curious, granite tombstones are a lot easier to climb than marble ones. It sounds disrespectful, but I think I would rather have children climbing all over my gravestone than adults weeping over it.

We never noticed the cemetery. It was just always part of the background, the piece of land between our house and the Johnsons'. We just took it for granted that it was there, which sometimes got in the way of decorum.

There was that fall day when I was in our driveway and I heard a sound like a shotgun. I thought it was either a car backfiring or these neighbor boys of ours hunting for rabbits in the cemetery. So I screamed, "Ugh, you got me," as loud as I could as I feigned death upon the family car.

My sister turned ashen and informed me there was a military funeral across the road. We bolted into the house as fast as we could and later found out from my father, one of the American Legion military shooters, that nothing noticeably odd had happened at the funeral.

Embarrassing, yes, but I chalk it up to the foolish days of  youth. I was 25 at the time.

Seeing funerals going on was odd. Granted, funerals aren't generally an invitation-only affair, but it still seemed strange having such a private event going on across the road.

When most people look out their kitchen windows, they see children riding by on bicycles or mail carriers traipsing up the sidewalk. Not  us; even if we didn't mean to, we'd still see the most grief-stricken moments of people's lives. Seeing this usually came with a hint of guilt, even if it was an accidental glance. It was like stealing a moment of their privacy, but they didn't know it.

Friends visiting after school would stare out the window at people visiting the graves. This is where I would get a little testy.

Look who's there, they'd say.

It's none of our business, I'd respond, and find us something else to do.

On vacation in Europe years later, my companions were spooked by the cemetery right under our hotel window in Salzburg, Austria. I thought it was great, especially when we checked it out the next day and found out Mozart's family was buried there. On a New York vacation, my friends and I did just about everything we wanted to do except see graveyards. Some people thought it was morbid to even connsider that as part of a vacation.

Cemeteries are not like notches on a stick, counting off who has died. They are not to be feared. They are monuments to life.

This post originally appeared as an essay in the Des Moines Register.

The ghost is across the street from the cemetery: During this summer's drought the outline of the family house that was razed seven years ago returned.