I am always surprised to hear people speaking of cemeteries as a waste of good space. In many parts of the world, cemeteries have preserved areas that would have otherwise become strip-malls or housing developments. On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where land is at a premium and beautiful ocean vistas abound, some of the best views are to be found in the historic cemeteries.
The monuments here do not express a great deal about the lives they memorialize. The motifs used have more to do with the convention of the times than the individual whose name and dates are slowly eroding from view. The oldest markers show winged death heads, which give way later to rising suns and winged cherub faces. In time, these motifs were replaced by images of urns, draperies and weeping willow trees.
The stones list, sink and crack. They become obscured by bright orange and green lichens. They tell stories of traditions, beliefs, family ties, epidemics and wars.
They speak to us of the enduring roles of communities and neighbors. They remind us of our places in society and the universe.
Though the stones tell us little about the personalities of their dead, we are reminded of their existence. We benefit from the knowledge that hundreds of years ago someone else- very much like ourselves walked this earth, toiled, worried, and dreamed.
We are reminded that one day, hundreds of years from now, there will be others, much like ourselves, who feel modern and new; who look back at our traditions and beliefs as quaint antiquities.
In turn, we may try to see ourselves and our values through the eyes of those who preceded us and of those who follow us. Perhaps this can help us to focus on what is really important and valuable in life.
I suppose that all of those thoughts could come to us when visiting a strip-mall too, but the cemetery is so much prettier!