Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Meaning Behind the Markers

I love cemeteries. Always have. Sort of an odd thing to love, I know. But I guess it's the history of them, the silent tales told by names and dates etched in stone and flanked by flowers typically fake but still indicative of someone's love for the person below. Cemeteries are quiet places as well and in today's times, I welcome the solitude.

Most particularly, I enjoy strolling through very old cemeteries--those with markers that aren't simply rectangle boxes short in stature but rather, mini monuments to the deceased. Markers that are centuries old are usually tall structures, often ornate, and indicative of the person or surviving family's wealth or social standing. Sometimes there are fences marking off the section, with elaborate landscaping. There are all sorts of things I infer about the person from the style and detail of their marker and gravesite. And then there are the really, really old cemeteries like in Boston and Savannah, Ga. The ancient markers in those are again rectangle, usually, but they are huge slabs of concrete that spell out paragraph after paragraph about the people they each represent: a mini biography of the dearly departed. Savannah has some super cool ones that are so old, many of the stones so weathered, the etchings are barely discernible and you have to jump from word to word, filling in the blanks with what makes sense.

I enjoy reading all these markers, envisioning what the person must have been like in their time. I calculate how long he lived, how much longer he lived than his spouse (if that marker is beside his own), how many children they perhaps had (often obvious by looking at neighboring gravesites). How did he/she dress, what did they eat, what did the area around them look like then as opposed to now? Did they live and die during wartime, famine, an epidemic? Did they themselves perish due to an epidemic that no longer or rarely exists today such as Yellow Fever, Scarlett Fever, Spotted Fever, Polio, Small Pox, etc. What that must have been like when a town was infected with such a silent killer. I would bet folks hovered indoors, trying to stay away from whatever caused these deadly diseases, and what must it have been like to learn that someone in your family was showing symptoms. I'm fascinated that vaccinations were discovered after people realized someone who had experienced one of these illnesses and survived could then treat others without becoming sick again.

Walking among cemeteries, taking in the names of people long gone and speculating about their lives is a way of honoring their memories even though I didn't know them personally. But what gets to me most in cemeteries far and wide, recent or old, are those tiny plots with small markers noting the children who lived too few days or none at all. Sometimes you see them with matching birth and death dates. Some have full names, others might simply say "Baby" before their family name. It's more disheartening to calculate the time lived in these cases, realizing it's a matter of months, a year, maybe three. How devastating for the family members who endured the tragedy of losing a child before they'd even entered school. And I always think: I just can't imagine it. How did the parents cope, how did they move on with their own lives after watching a toddler die before he knew so much of what life has to offer. And then, like all the other markers, I move on past.

Now, however, I've seen firsthand what losing a child so young does to you. There is so much more that goes on behind the dates etched in stone. My close friend's niece battled leukemia for almost a year and finally succumbed to the tremendously aggressive disease last Sunday, just one week shy of her second birthday. Sobbing with grief so deep it shakes you to the core...watching her parents say their goodbyes and then figure out how to move on is tragic and heartbreaking beyond words.

And I realize that as much as I thought I understood, while pausing at the smallest of grave markers in cemeteries, how horrible it must have been for the family and friends to endure such a loss, I really didn't know the half of it. Now I do.

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