Memento Mori

I don’t particularly harbor a death wish—far from it—and had planned this post long before current events unfolded and gave us more reminders of our mortality than we would ever want. Some people avoid cemeteries, but others gravitate toward them (even while still alive). One reason I like to spend time there is related to my favorite pastime: birding. As most graveyards are verdant oases and provide habitat for much avian life, it’s not unusual for birders to frequent them.

While human cacophony and chaos are ubiquitous, they tend to spare memorial parks, perhaps out of some underlying tacit acknowledgment that our dead deserve peace and quiet. Or because of an inherent human tendency to avoid reminders of our impermanence and finiteness. And while I’m not particularly fond of my own, I am attracted by the stillness and serenity that tend to shroud cemeteries.

My personal interest in history and desire to seek out the final resting places of persons whose life stories have touched me adds another motivation to visit. 220-acre Evergreen Cemetery was founded in 1871, and while young by European standards, its tangle of tombs tells ample tales.

Regardless of who we are, whether we end up in a pauper’s grave or a fancy mausoleum, whether we are believers in an afterlife or in complete oblivion, whether we are cremated or left to return to the elements out of which we were made, burial grounds remind me of our shared humanity and fate, a realization I find strangely consoling.

Because birds and other animals have no compunctions about spending time in necropolises, and populate them naturally and actively, and because the local vegetation reflects nature’s cycles and the passing of the seasons, I find comfort in the pulsating life force that is everywhere in evidence, some of which I will share with you next week.

To enlarge a photo, click on it.

41 thoughts on “Memento Mori

  1. Amazing beauty you’ve found Tanja, I think your post is extraordinary! The art in these memorials is exquisite and very touching, and your introduction very sensitive. Kudos my friend, imho this is an outstanding blogpost! Much love xx

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  2. By chance, we visited a cemetery last weekend – to find a stone that is said to move on its own [the subject of some future post]. But as we often do, we looked at the markers contemplating the lives of those people and some particularly interesting artwork.
    Now, however, you have opened my eyes to another aspect. The next time, I will also look for the avian population.

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  3. There is a large cemetery in a coastal town on the Norfolk coast which is a migrant hotspot in fall conditions. This is due to it being a dark oasis in a sea of artificial light. Used to look forward to searching the bushes in autumn to see if any rarities had taken refuge. Sadly you are now more likely to stumble across druggies or homeless which ain’t good if you’ve got expensive optics on you!

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    • A cemetery along a coast sounds particularly appealing, minus the potentially dangerous encounters of the human kind.

      I have to say that our homeless are scattered in many places, but I have never encountered them at this cemetery. It’s not really close to any libraries or shops, which might have something to do with it.

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  4. I too get a strange pleasure from wandering through cemeteries, reading the names and simple inscriptions on the memorials, and speculating on the stories that have been buried forever with the deceased who lie beneath them. And, as you say, cemeteries are also good for birds and other wildlife, safe havens for the natural world in an otherwise hostile – or at least indifferent – neighbourhood. Owls roost in a churchyard quite close to where Mrs P’s parents live 🦉. It’s wonderful to hear them calling on a quiet, moonlit night (the owls, that is, not my parents-in-law! 🙂)

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    • I also wonder about the lives of all those dead, but I have to admit that I can only read so many inscriptions before I’m overcome by sadness, especially when someone’s life was cut far too short.

      The owls at your parents-in-law’s churchyard (you might have noticed that I didn’t use that appellation, as none of our cemeteries is near a church, which is the norm in Europe) sound like a good reason to visit there (or at least nearby) at night). I wonder how many people still associate owls with ill omens and death, though.

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  5. Bud Powell was a great jazz pianist. He was a great innovator too, helping to develop the bebop style of jazz. He is buried in a cemetery near my home in the Philadelphia suburbs. For years I’ve meant to visit his grave, but have yet to do so. One of these days . . .

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  6. That’s an apt choice of a verb: “the stillness and serenity that tend to shroud cemeteries.” Now we’ve both done cemetery posts this year. Mine, as you recall, was from the Philippines. In yours, the inscription “Ruhe in Frieden” implies at least one cemetery in addition to the Evergreen in Colorado Springs—unless some Germans happen to be buried there.

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    • As so often, thank you for noticing the little details, Steve. We do have few additional cemeteries, but I found the bench with the German inscription at Evergreen, which is not all that surprising, considering that Colorado Springs is a military town and has attracted a multi-ethnic population.

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    • The old lie, indeed. Nothing sweet and fitting about Owen’s death. According to John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature, ” [Owen] died in the last week of the war. The telegram announcing his death was delivered to this family as the church bells began ringing for the declaration of peace.”

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  7. As a contrast, there are ‘green’ burial sites here with no memorials at all. Our local cemetery has an area like this – just planted with trees, but otherwise allowed to go wild and it’s like a little nature reserve. (Mum decided that that was where she and Dad should be buried…surrounded by nature.)

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    • I like that idea, Ann. I am also attracted by the notion of more natural burials, in which people are interred in a biodegradable shroud rather than in a wooden, metal, or stone coffin. It will accelerate the process of our return into the circle of life…

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    • Thank you for your comment, Matti. Angels in cemeteries seem very popular, at least in the Western world (I don” know about other regions of the globe). Memorials are very powerful, but that would be the topic of another post.
      Best wishes,
      Tanja

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  8. What a lovely post, Tanja. I have very special memories around graveyards. As an au pair in Germany it was a quiet place for me to which I retreated especially during the times I missed home, and I will never forget when students took me with them in Taiwan on “tomb-sweeping day” to remember their ancestors by cleaning their tombs and offering sacrifices.

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  9. I enjoy time in cemeteries of every sort: both the larger ones filled with impressive statuary and the small, family cemeteries tucked here and there out in the country. We happen to have an Evergreen Cemetery in Paris, Texas. One of its most famous monuments is known as Jesus in Cowboy Boots, and it was carved by a German immigrant who happened to be a master stone-cutter.

    The smallest cemetery I’ve ever found contained two graves, tucked into a triangle of land formed by the intersection of two farm-to-market roads. The stones clearly were homemade, and quite worn, but the chickens that were pecking around them didn’t seem to mind.

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    • I think Evergreen must be one of the most common names for cemeteries!

      You are right, cemeteries are fascinating, be they small or large. I often marvel at some of the monuments people chose for their graves, such as the one you refer to, but I know that I want nothing ostentatious on my own grave. At times I debate whether I want a marker at all. But I think that’s a more important question for those left behind-if any.

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  10. While cemeteries certainly represent the loss of loved one and sadness, there is much beauty to find in the ones that are thoughtfully created and maintained. Locally we have one where birders often walk among the gravestones. It is thickly treed and a wonderful place for quiet contemplation…and warblers.
    http://www.wildwood-cemetery.com/
    Like you, I am in no hurry for my demise. But it will come. We are to be cremated and our ashes will be spread, with those of our dogs, in a favorite national park, but if we felt otherwise, Wildwood would be a fine choice.

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      • I have lived here, in our Amherst home for thirty five+ years, in an apartment previously for three years, and went to school and lived here afterwards (with time on Nantucket between) for five years. As I have ashamedly admitted before, I haven’t set foot in Dickinson’s home or visited her grave. Not much of a good local, I guess, and my shame is not strong enough for me to remedy that. 🙂
        A recent hubbub rose when an old strip of shops was torn down to make way for a high rise apartment/office building here. The back wall of the old structure had a mural with Emily’s visage along with other pictures facing the cemetery where she lies. It is interesting that the cemetery is called “West Amherst” as it is nearly in the center of town. The uproar was strong enough that the wall was maintained and the mural preserved. The new building is rather unattractive as is another nearby and has ruined, in the minds of many, the nature of our town.

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      • Forgive my poor memory, Steve, because your explanation just reminded me of our exchange about Emily Dickinson. I have never been to Amherst, but if/when I ever get there, I hope to be able to visit her former home and gravesite. I’m glad the wall with her mural was preserved.

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