No More Breath
When I was young, I used to hold my breath every time we passed a cemetery. I kept the habit until the age of 11 and first visited Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. As we approached, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to hold my breath all day long.
It was there that my superstitions about cemeteries died and were replaced with a short-lived curiosity about bones. I was a shy child and wanted to avoid the pomp and circumstance, the accolades and melancholy of a funeral and burial. I was a strange child, too. I wanted to avoid my corpse turning to goo and I decided it would be best to be cremated.
I’ve Danced with Ghosts
In college, we had an irreverent Halloween tradition, a Mausoleum Party. At 18, I danced on the steps of a tomb dressed as a sexy vampire. I didn’t put much thought into the location. Irreverence is required in college, and sexy vampires should dance with ghosts.
But I wasn’t raised irreverent. By morning, I was back to being mortal and boring.
I never set foot in a cemetery again until I was 24 and my grandmother had passed away. I didn’t think about my ancestors or history. I didn’t think about omens or angels. I thought again about the goo in the coffin. I watched and read too much science fiction as a child. My fear of goo has just as much to do with as it does with the afterlife.
Hello in There!
I’m not afraid of death. I’m not curious about death. I’m not overly concerned with my bones being buried or burned anymore. I think it is best to avoid cemeteries. But at some point in your life they call to you.
Last January after a big breakfast, my family and I decided to take a stroll before heading home. The restaurant was near Oakland Cemetery, and in all my years in Atlanta I’d never been inside the gates.
My kids needed some explanations before we started our walk. “Dead people are buried in the ground,” I started and ended with tips for Southern hospitality, “Don’t step on the graves, don’t run, and keep your voices down.”
I’m the first to admit that my children are ill-mannered. They stepped foot into the cemetery and took off running full sprint. The middle one headed to the first mausoleum and shouted, “Hello!” She turned back to me smiling. Great. I’ve seen “The Sixth Sense.” She sees dead people. The other two followed suit. Shouting into the locked memorials and pointing at the tombstones asking, “Are dead people really under there?” I have no clue. Probably bones and goo.
We now have a tradition of walking in the . One morning my kids accosted an elderly lady placing flowers and asked her, “Did YOU put that body in the ground?”
“No,” she responded kindly. “Someone else put them in there. That’s my mother and father.” I looked at the dates and noted they died before I was born.
“Does dirt get into their noses?”
“No,” the lady answered again. She was infinite kindness when I was aflame with embarrassment. She looked like the type to admonish, but her admonishing eyes turned to me. “Let them ask,” her face said.
Did she mean me, too? I was 11 again. I wanted to ask her why we hold our breath. Are we afraid to admit our fear or happy anticipation of dying? Are we holding our breath because we are waiting?
My husband buried his father one year and the next year he buried his grandfather. There was no solace in his sadness. I started writing about cemeteries for him. For those who didn’t want to be in cemeteries, but then I realized I wanted to write about cemeteries for my kids. They walk withour fear or anticipation. They are guilty of being curious.
I have a black cat, and I walk under ladders. I am not afraid of broken mirrors or umbrellas opened indoors. But I never walk on graves. I walk between them. It is not out of superstition, but respect. I don’t want my children to be afraid or fascinated by graveyards. We use them as a place of learning.
My kids practice recognizing letters and perfect their reading. Tombstones can be more fascinating than a book.
We ponder people whose lives are marked by a few words and brief date range. There is history. There are a thousand lifetimes frozen in time.
Graveyards are like libraries without words.
Cemeteries are good places to go for a walk. We are always surrounded by spirits and humans. Runners, dog walkers, families on a stroll, those remembering love ones, and those forgetting.
We feed ducks and shout into the echoing mausoleums. I hope the spirits are happy to hear the laughter of my children. Maybe they hear my nervous steps trying to navigate the line between the graves. Maybe they want us to hold our breath so that we can understand the quiet of the other side.