A graveyard can teach you

A centuries-old graveyard in Oxford, not far from Headington Quarry.  December, 2005

A centuries-old graveyard in Oxford, not far from Headington Quarry. December, 2005

“Spending time in a graveyard can teach you a lot about living. When I stopped at each grave I swear I could almost hear the silent stories of perfect strangers. Their tombs like silent philosophies of all the ways a life can be lived.”Simone Nacerima

Graveyards are a common motif at this time of year, supposedly spine-tingling places of dread.  In reality, though, I’ve never found graveyards the least bit frightening, even back in 1975 when I was blindfolded  and driven out to a rural cemetery during a sorority initiation that fell on Halloween.  I was left sitting alone on a tombstone in the dark, and I didn’t even peek to see where I was.  I remember wondering about the name on the tombstone, whose grave I might be disrespecting (through no choice of my own), silently apologizing to this person’s soul, and wondering what kind of life he or she may have led.

One December evening in 2005, I was alone in another small, unlit graveyard adjacent to an old country church in Headington Quarry, England.  I was searching for the grave of C. S. Lewis, and while I felt a panic that increased as the darkness closed in quickly, my fear was that I would have to leave, disappointed, never having spotted the earthly resting place of my favorite author.  I also feared I might not be able find my way back in the dark, across fields and through neighborhoods, to the bus stop where I started — at least, not in time to catch the last bus to Oxford where I was to meet my son at Christchurch for vespers.

Though so dark I could scarcely read the Lewis marker when I did find it, the graveyard itself was not spooky at all to me.  As with all cemeteries, it seemed filled with stories I wish I had time to learn.  I left with some regret, and though I did make it back to the bus stop just in time, the images of my twilight pilgrimage to Holy Trinity church have stayed with me, one of those otherworldly experiences that never fade from the imagination.

I hope the cartoon-like portrayals of graveyards that are so abundant at this time of year do not close our eyes to the lessons such places have to teach us.  May their silent stories bless you with wisdom, contentment and resolve!

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43 Comments

  1. Ecclesiastes 7:2

    • Eric, a perfect verse for this post! For the benefit of those who don’t have a Bible sitting nearby, here’s the text:

      It is better to go to a house of mourning
      than to go to a house of feasting,
      for death is the destiny of everyone;
      the living should take this to heart.

      Thanks for providing this thought to go along with today’s discussion!

  2. Judy from Pennsylvania

    Tomorrow, four of us from three different towns are meeting together to go exploring several cemeteries in the hope of finding the graves of our mutual great and great-great grandparents. One of those internet sites for delving into family ancestry has revealed a lot of information that sparked our interest and gave clues for where these ancestors lived and might be buried. We feel a sort of longing to connect with them in some way, to demonstrate our respect for the lives they led and the hardships they endured. And also perhaps to give us a bit of an anchor with our own past in the midst of various kinds of upheavals in our personal lives, as well as the world at large.

    Visiting a grave provides an emotional touchstone to the life of that person and the ways that our own life has been influenced by another’s. It provides a time of reflection. I loved your entry today about your search for the final resting place of C.S. Lewis and I feel I understand why you wanted go there.

    • Judy, thanks so much for sharing this. What a wonderful idea, to get together with other descendents and visit the grave of a shared family member! I think a part of the fascination so many of us have with time travel, is the idea of “visiting” those who came before (or will come after) to explore the ways their existence reverberates through ours. Also, what a great way to connect to living relatives! A lot is said about the negative aspects of social media and the internet, but it has made possible so many re-connections. I have been quite happy to visit online with some of my cousins whom I have not seen in many years, each of whom has always had a place in my heart despite our growing up and living in different areas of the country. If you have time, I hope you will post an update here about what you discover tomorrow!

  3. This is a wonderful story, as a member of our local genealogy society it has given me a topic for speaking to them. Jim

    • Wow, Jim, that makes me so happy! I wish I could hear your talk. Your blog was one of the very first I started following almost a year ago, and I can remember reading your loving tributes to your sisters. You really brought them to life in your words and photos, and when I finished reading your posts, I felt almost as if I had known them. I think it’s so important to remember the lives of those whose lives have touched ours in some way. As C. S. Lewis wrote in one of my favorite passages of his (which I may quote here soon), “you have never met a mere mortal.” A sobering and thrilling thought! Good luck with your talk.

      • Thank you and I do enjoy reading your blogs. Have a very blessed day. Jim

  4. Sheila

    Julia, I’m so glad you were able to find the grave of C.S. Lewis, knowing your fondness of him. It sounds as though you accomplished your mission with only minutes to spare.I would really like to visit Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Ga. sometime. Have you ever been there? Well, it’s off to the workplace. “Do I own this business or does it own me?” :-)

    • Is Bonaventure the one featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? If so, I have wanted to go there ever since reading that book, which I really enjoyed. While the movie was quite different from the book, I enjoyed it too, and got a big kick about the real-life Lady Chablis playing that role in the movie – who else could have done it? :-)

      • Sheila

        Yes, it is the one. I didn’t read the book but I, too, enjoyed the movie. That cemetery must be beautiful in the spring! Hope all your news this week is good.

        • Maybe some springtime we can all take a weekend getaway and meet up there! Jeff and I have never been to Savannah, which is almost unbelievable to me considering I grew up in Atlanta and have had family there all these years. Our honeymoon was in Charleston SC but we never made it to Savannah.

  5. Michael

    Living in South Seattle -we live to close to Greenwood cemetery- the gravesite of Seattle son-Jimmi Hendrix. When my daughter- in law- from Florida- first came to Seattle- the one place she wanted to visit was his grave. I think I have been there once, but fans come from world over to visit. I would like to see the Lewis site. I would also like to visit the site of Michel Patrucianni’s grave in Paris, favorite pianist.
    Today on the UR site I was reference as a,” West Coast Raynard”, which I have to take as a wonderful compliment.

    • Michael, I simply have to find time to get over to UR today and read that comment! Yes, it’s a wonderful compliment, but it’s a connection I would never have made myself. Raynard is definitely one of a kind! Although each of us is also unique, just not as obviously so.

      Is Patrucianni buried at Père Lachaise? As you probably remembered, I’ve posted photos here a couple of times from that enormous graveyard, which is definitely a “must-see” in Paris. When I read your note about your daughter wanting to go to Jimmy Hendrix’s grave, it reminded me of seeing Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise. His tombstone’s inscription, which Drew was luckily there to translate (it was in Greek) was quite chilling: “According to his own demons.” There is no small amount of debate on the internet as to what that meant, and how it should be translated (some say ‘demons’ is not the best word to use, but that’s another topic). In my mind, it will always mean “at the hand of his own demons.” I had a brief chat, insofar as I was able to do so in my limited French, with the guard who has to be posted there at all times due to the many fans who plunder or otherwise deface the grave for “souvenirs.” I asked him why he thought there was such a perennial fascination with the grave of a man who (IMO) was only a marginally gifted musician compared to the many other true geniuses buried in that cemetery. He agreed when I said that I thought Morrison was more famous dead than alive, and he said that he thought his enduring interest for many was mostly because he was so very young when he died.

  6. We used to live in a parsonage with a graveyard behind it. I loved the character of the graveyard. I used to walk in and through it looking at the old tombstones and wondering about those laid to rest there. It was peaceful and comforting.

    • It’s interesting to me that graveyards were once almost universally located beside church houses, yet nowadays almost never are. I wonder if this says something about the change (adulteration?) in how we view theology in general, and Christianity in particular? One would think that the graves would be a continual reminder of the heart of the Christian gospel, but somewhere along the line, I wonder if we became collectively uncomfortable with certain aspects of Christian doctrine. In our understandable but erroneous quest to create our heaven here on earth, with mostly tangible and perishable things, we have forgotten the terrifying simplicity of eternity, which ultimately renders so many of our pursuits meaningless. Nobody wants to “gaze into the abyss” lest we find it staring back into us (as Nietzsche famously warned) but I don’t think we can rightly appreciate our own existence until we do.

  7. Ryan

    Gravesite trivia I learned on a tour here in Charleston: a cemetary stands as it’s own piece of land. A graveyard is always adjacent to a church and on church property. Interesting, huh?

    • Ryan, I believe I had heard that distinction somewhere before, but had forgotten it. I’ll have to remember it in future references. I guess it makes sense in that we tend to think of a “yard” as something adjacent to a building – as opposed to a “field” or “meadow” or even “lot” which isn’t. Thanks for the reminder!

      • BTW the Oxford graveyard in the photo is indeed a graveyard, located alongside a very old church.

  8. Our house in Germany was next to a very old Jewish cemetery. We loved it for many reasons but it always kind of fascinated me that it was left alone and obviously respected. It was quiet and dark.

    • Wow, I don’t remember seeing it. Was it in the back? I wish I had gone there! Your whole village was interesting.

      • When you came out the front door it was directly in front of you. You wouldn’t see it from the street because of the garage. It was lovely. Crews came twice a year to clean it out. Did you visit the graveyard in Lexington where Stonewall Jackson is buried. I thought it was a wonderful place to wander around. Some of the poetical stories on the headstones were uplifting to read. You and I should plan a trip down there. I know you were in the bookstore, I have seen photo’s of Drew in it.

        • Yes, we did prowl around the graveyard and went to Washington and Lee campus. We loved Lexington and Jeff and I went back and spent a night there on our way home from taking Matt to camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2005. We really should go there together some day. Virginia has so many pretty little towns.

  9. :D what a remarkable coincidence you chose to share this with us today. I’m glad you finally found C. S. Lewis and had this story to tell. Just yesterday, with the sun shining brightly, I took a stroll thru a large-old cemetery near downtown. I went initially to take some interesting photo’s but quickly got side-tracked by names and dates, mentally calculating ages and how long ago they left this earth. I was touched by one couple who had their names engraved on a small double heart, like one last Valentine for all time. I don’t plan to be buried, but if I did, this would be a nice place. The giant spruce attract birds and squirrels and the dappled light warmed my face, even though my toes were frozen. It had snowed a tad the night before. I was hoping all these old souls still get the odd visit, either by chance or by those who care to remember a long-gone ancestor. I don’t find graveyards too spooky either, but I don’t think I’d go at night :D

    • Jeff was just saying yesterday “I bet Boomdee has had snow already.” I do the same thing, go into graveyards and cemeteries intending to take pictures, and get lost in the inscriptions, wondering about the backstory. I haven’t been to a graveyard after dark lately, but I don’t think it would scare me. I don’t know why the night doesn’t frighten me more than it does. I used to be terrified at night when I was a kid. But often, I’ll be out walking and not get in until after dark (especially in the summer, when I might stop into a shop or chat with neighbors) and not even have a flashlight with me. That’s dumb, I know, but time just gets away from me in the evening, whether I’m indoors or out.

      • You can tell Jeff it was just a skiff and luckily mostly melted as it fell :D But this cemetery is very treed and the sun just peaks thru late in the morning. Calgary got really nailed and it was a driving nightmare.

        I used to walk out at night at the lake, to and from neighbours or just to walk Buddy for his late night business. If I heard a twig snap, I’d start to sing! LOL. Usually a country tune or Christmas song, ha. I thought,anything hearing something sounding that bad would know I wasn’t good eating, LOL

        • That’s funny! I never even thought to be afraid of animals, since I grew up in the suburbs. When we lived on the wild and remote central California coast, I had neighbors who would report seeing rattlesnakes, bobcats and once, a mountain lion, along with lots of coyotes and foxes. But I never saw any of these critters; maybe I’m just not good at spotting them. Jeff can spot wildlife much better than I can. He can be driving along at 70 mph and say “look at those deer” and I can stare straight out the window and still not see them unless they are very close, but he sees them seemingly entirely from his peripheral vision.

          The only things I’m scared of at night are snakes and loitering people, and I figure if I stay on well-lit sidewalks or streets, I can have plenty of advance notice of either. I surely wouldn’t go walking through any tall grass at night, especially in the summertime!

          • LOL, yes Jim and I have opposite eye sight too. I’m terrible in the car, shouting things like, “WHAT’S THAT?”…and he’ll say “WHAT?” (all of a sudden in extreme alert mode). Then it’ll turn out to be a paper bag on the road or something…LOL. He always say’s I’m trying to give him grey hair..hehe

            You’re wise to stay in a lit area if out at night. I wouldn’t even go out after dark alone downtown, lit or not. Unfortunately. There are too many weirdo’s and luckily a gate closes here at 7pm and the tall iron fence is too pointy to climb. Jim doesn’t worry like me but he’s a man. I miss my late night walks.

            • Yes, I agree that it’s best not to be out after dark. I do occasionally go on high alert when a car pulls over to the sidewalk (usually to ask directions) whether it’s dark or not! If it’s a couple or a group, I am normally comfortable with talking to them, but when it’s just one person, I’m super cautious…kind of like that photo of me with the British guard – ready to run!!!

  10. Michael

    Yes Pere Lachaise cemetery for Michel Patrucianni. I did notice some of the older Churches north of Atlanta with freestanding gravesites.

    • Yes, I believe there are a couple of churches that were spared by Sherman when he burned everything else to the ground. When I think of Sherman, I understand to some degree how people in Hiroshima or Nagasaki must feel, even if they are generations removed from it and didn’t know anyone who died there.

  11. Sheila

    Julia, I feel sure we’ll meet one day! Call it a “Heart- feeling”…..:-)

  12. I’ve been digging into some family tree research recently, and reading lots of obits in the course of things. It seems morbid sometimes, but it’s really quite fascinating!

    • Yes, lately I’ve been surprised to find myself reading obituaries of people I don’t even know. The Washington Post usually prints photos, and often a person’s face will catch my eye, and I feel curious about them and want to find out what their life was like. To me it’s not morbid; just the opposite, because we are reading about their LIFE, not their death. I have to keep myself from even looking at that page usually because I don’t have time for it, but it really would be totally fascinating to read obituaries from the past, especially of ancestors.

  13. Raynard

    hello. last few years , i find myself also reading obituaries. I find the way people “lived life and not just”existed like a germ or piece of dust in the air”.. I even saved one from a few years ago. It was so well written, I told my wife”I want mine to be written like that so people can know me not just”born 19xx- died 20xx'( heard a story lately about the dash and how it tell “your story inbetween those years.. Next to my favorite songs” you’re so van ( Carly Simon the version with Mick Jagger singing background), Carole King”It’s too late, Dooby Brother”What a fool believes”. A song from Sergio Mendez and Brazil 77 called”Life’. please find it can”give it a spin( listen). Last, wife came home from North and South Carolina. Showed me a picture of her mom’s grave. Right next to it is plot already purchased for her aunt in NJ ( her mom’s sister) who is dwindling/fading away from dementia and alzheimers..Second hardest thing to watch since my other daughter right after birth died while stationed in Germany back in 1985-1986..While on Burial detail at Ft Bliss, TX we kinda/sorta had to “tip toe around head stone”like the Fat lady in the circus wearing”skinny leans lol.

    • Raynard, you had some of the same favorite songs I did. I think I have every one of those first three records you listed, and Carly Simon has always been one of my favorite singers. My Daddy used to have an old Sergio Mendez album back when they were Brazil ’66 and did a cover of “The Fool on the Hill” which he really liked. I could not find a song called “Life” by them online, but I did find one that was called “Life goes on” by Brazil 77. Wow that group is a true blast from the past. They recorded with Herb Alpert whom my parents used to listen to all the time, along with Al Hirt, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Jack Jones, etc. I also remember listening to Frankie Laine’s cowboy music which I still like. Not the same as country music at all, which I don’t care for.

      Sorry to hear about your wife’s aunt. I think it would be very hard to lose someone to dementia. I didn’t realize you had lost a daughter. Sometimes I wonder how we all survive the heartbreaks in life but it inspires me to see that most of us are somehow able to keep going, one day at a time and sometimes one hour or one step at a time.

  14. Raynard

    Julia the song I told you about let me correct myself. It was Sergio Mendes and the New Brazil 77. They have another song on their Brazil 88 album( lol) called Waters of March. thank you for the reply. Got 2 projects going tell me what you think.Started a online radio blog for people with trouble seeing. (and reading) Possible”Christmas wish to “do my Smokey& the Bandit/Cannon ball Run to visit anyone on UR willing to make time in their busy lives. Reading about all the sickness and cargiving 24/7 I can relate and we can all use some encouragement.( no it’s not time for me to sing”The Bee Gees”Stayin Alive, ( is it me or they sound like”Alvin and the Chipmonks?” Let me throw out there Billy Joel, The River of Dreams, Steely Dan “Peg” mixed with some Partridge Family”Come on get Happy, ( Frankie Valli& the Four Seasons, Glen Campbell “Southern Nights, Bobbie Gentry “Ode to Billy Joe”..

    • You clearly have a similar musical taste to mine. I have often sung “Ode to Billy Joel” over the years and I would go so far as to say IMO it’s the second-best American ballad of our generation (the first being “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot). Love “Peg” and many others by Steely Dan; Jeff and I saw them in concert in Norfolk a few years back and to my surprise, it is Becker that has all the personality of that duo, not Fagan as I had always imagined. I like Billy Joel’s earlier stuff much better (before his mid-life Christy crisis) but I do like “River of Dreams.” Re the Cannonball Run, I know that Henry, Cindy and I very much enjoyed our brief dinner together, as have many others from UR who meet in real life. I think there are several in Virginia who might be able to get together. I’m happy to hear you have done a radio blog; are you podcasting it? One great thing about all these different formats is that people who can’t or won’t read now have another way to access books and other media.

  15. Michael

    Those of us living in the North really have little idea of the horror and ramifications of Sherman’s march to the sea. He burned most of the churches too? When I write my story of Ten cent Bill- I hope I can stay true to the milieu.
    Did you catch the Story today about Sand Man writer on NPR who characterized his work as the “prince of stories”? Writers are princes and princesses of stories who take people to other worlds, times and places. ” Something like that. I am not familiar with this Comic character but apparently it is very complicated and nuanced. British origin?
    Notice my soul brother Raynard is on the site.

    • I have read conflicting stories of whether Sherman ordered the burning of the churches and other non-military targets, or whether some of them simply ended up as collateral damage. I do remember hearing there were at least two that he specifically spared, but this too may be hearsay. As with all warfare up to and including today, even the best of military commanders ultimately have no control of the rogue actions of individual soldiers, and this is one thing that makes war so destructive and terrifying. I have little doubt that the stories told by survivors have been exaggerated and one-sided, but it’s understandable that they would be. Once you start a fire, it would be exceptionally hard to contain it, especially if your objective was to burn and move on and burn some more.

  16. Michael

    I like the tomb stone epitath attributed to Lecome–” I told you I was sick.”

    • Yes, I have always found that one very amusing! I have often thought that I would like my epitaph to read: “She played well the hand she was dealt” but then I realized that it might imply I was a poker player, which I have never been! :-) Back to the drawing board.

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