The Secret Charms of Graveyards and Funerals
I didn't think I had a problem
I was enjoying dinner in a trendy Ottawa downtown restaurant when I realized I might have a problem. Three friends of a similar age gathered for a regular get-together. We had bonded during a government assignment, mainly in solidarity over how we would have managed the work situation so much better than our incompetent bosses. We had decided to keep in touch regularly for dinner in smart Ottawa restaurants for career advice, check-in, and much laughter.
On that evening, we were each taking our turn to catch up when Rachel, a cheery well-dressed blonde with an acid tongue, turned to me and asked, “So Carol, tell me about your latest graveyard and funeral adventures.”
Ouch — I felt my face burning. Did I have a problem? I didn’t think so. But to be fair, I have always had a fondness for funerals, graveyards, and even crypts.
Some of my most comforting childhood memories are of visiting graveyards with my history-loving mother and father. One of my earliest memories was visiting a gravestone that my mother told me was for Mr. McGregor, and I asked her if Peter Rabbit was also buried there.
I was astonished at how those resting places in small French towns were so out of proportion in their large size to the small population of the village. When I was six, I visited the site where Joan of Arc was put to death in Rouen and decided then and there that my career choice was to be my version of Joan of Arc. A visit with my father to the Gallipoli gravesite brought us closer than we had ever been as I felt the depth of his own emotion after years served in World War II in the campaigns of Italy and Holland.
Sometimes my parents and I were on the hunt for the resting place of a long lost relative — like the grandfather I never met who was buried in Duncan, British Columbia, after being mowed down by a hit-and-run driver in the 1930s or my great grandfather buried in the Russian Cemetery in Nice. But mostly, we visited graveyards just to read the tombstone data and wonder about those lives, often cut short by childbirth, disease and by war — with the occasional resilient, long-lived matriarch.
Sort of like other families visited zoos, circuses or Disneyland, my parents and I visited graveyards.
To cover my embarrassment at the dinner with Rachel, I replied that yes I had attended one or two recently, but laughed it off, saying I haunted funerals out of a fondness for the little crustless egg tuna and ham sandwiches and the delicious squares whipped up by the auxiliary church ladies.
But that was just my cover. As a lover of rituals, of course, I went to pay respects to the dead and to comfort the living. Once eulogies came into vogue, I was captivated by the stories of lives lived when one scratched beneath the tombstone data, daughter of the mother, dates of birth and death. I am not sure if it was because I knew many interesting people, but they were like mini-biographies: people shot down over Burma and imprisoned, the lady who grew up in Shanghai and who buried two fiancés shot down during World War II and married a third who died in his 40s of aggressive cancer, and those people who just carried on and put one foot in front of the other through the Depression, the World Wars and the miserable trials and demands of everyday life. Far from depressing me, funerals leave me with a fierce will to get out and start living while there is still time and perhaps so there will be something worthwhile to say about me as I lie in a coffin, in an urn or sprinkled in the woods.
Funerals sometimes bring high drama. At one funeral of a friend of my father, a son that nobody knew about suddenly appeared to pay his respects. This caused the hum of gossip to travel through the church like the buzz of cicadas on a hot summer afternoon.
When a cousin, the physician and star of the family, died in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, his family was asked to sit on one side of the church and his gay community on the right leaving a gay relative confused as to which side to choose.
By the time my parents died, I had so much practice that I found my voice to deliver their eulogies. Both eulogies wrote themselves, and I knew what to say. But how did this happen — that they both died and left their only child alone?
Perhaps I am drawn to funerals out of an intense need to connect to people more deeply — beyond the shallow chats at the gym, on the street, and in tightly orchestrated social situations. This is a gathering on a deeper level, without the need for invitations and social niceties. It is an opportunity to grieve together and to cry — a beautiful catharsis shared in the company of others.
That is what I should have explained to the women at the restaurant.
Carol, you articulated so many things we think about and feel in relation to living and dying. Somehow my weekly walks through Mount Pleasant Cemetery make me feel as if I am part of a grand continuum of souls with all of the same yearnings, fears and desires of those who preceded me. I never fail to chuckle when passing my favourite mausoleum to a military man named Captain Fluke . And I will not forget the seemingly thousands of crosses at the Cimetière Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy commemorating our Canadian fallen soldiers. So many who died to ensure that we might live our lives as you suggest - with the freedom to be our best selves. Thank you, Carol.
Carol - It is clear that you really understand that grief is what leads us to experience the fullness of life. I too haunt cemetaries looking for someone with the same name as mine. Equal parts humour and pathos. A well balanced and well told piece. Congratulations.