I love graveyards. Even as a prepubescent girl I’d spend many Sunday afternoons walking through the historic cemetery in my old neighborhood. Amidst the weather-worn graves and ivy-covered mausoleums, which resembled tiny medieval cottages, I felt completely at home. I realize it may seem morbid, creepy and just a wee bit Morticia-Adams-esque, but I’ve always found the experience to be peaceful and often profound. Outside those cemetery gates, the Cleveland streets raged with noise and traffic and sometimes crime, but within the walls of Riverside Cemetery, tranquility washed over me like summer rain.
Throughout my life when faced with difficult times, I’d always headed to the nearest graveyard to find comfort among those who’d journeyed before me. After all, whatever problems those folks faced in life were long over. I’d found freedom in remembering all is temporary, and what better place to do that than in a cemetery.
One warm June evening last year, when life had given me much to ponder, I stopped by the small graveyard near my home. With its lovely grounds, duck pond, and wooden benches, it could’ve been mistaken for a park. As I sat meditating, I sensed a presence. I opened my eyes to find an elderly man waving and teetering toward me.
Slow, wobbled steps carried him the bench where I sat. He slowly lowered himself and extended his hand. “Name’s John.” His whole life showed on his face in a roadmap of wrinkles. His journey in life appeared to have been a long one. “Do you got to be a certain denomination to be buried here?”
My eyes skated over the graves for any religious symbols. “I don’t believe so.” I shook my head. ”I don’t have any loved ones here, but it seems to be open to everyone from what I could tell.”
“Good. That’s good.” He let his pale, blue eyes wander over the beautiful landscape. Turning his gaze back to me he said, “I usually take my walks across the street at that small park with the covered bridge, but tonight, something told me to come in here. Don’t have many more seasons left in me.” He shrugged. “I’m looking for a place to stay.”
A place to stay…I let the words settle over me like the fading summer sun. He’d said it so matter-of-factly. No sadness in his voice. No sense of doom. Just the practical need to find a place, like a college grad searching for a new apartment after landing his first job.
After a bit of small talk, he wished me a nice night and with a wink, told me he was going to check out the ‘neighborhood’. I turned back to the still pond with an odd feeling, wondering what it might feel like to shop for a grave that would be needed sooner rather than later. Sure, I’ve always found comfort in cemeteries, but more as a tourist. As someone who could soak up the quiet beauty and visit with those early travelers, then head back to my home…my job…my life…
But, I wondered how I would feel when it was my time to find a place to stay. Would I still feel that beautiful stillness – that unmistakable other-worldliness that could only be found in a garden of lives lived? I sat with that thought for several moments, as sadness filled me. Sadness for my future grave-shopping self. Sadness for that kind old man who needed to make a quick purchase.
As I headed to my car, I looked over to John. He paused in front of a towering angel statue with wings that seem to spread to infinity. He touched the extended stone hand of the divine sculpture, then looked up to the sky, his blue eyes glistening, his aged face beaming. He looked like an angel, himself. A sense of peace seemed to come over him. He tilted his head as if listening to a gentle whisper telling him he was where he needed to be.
At that moment, I thought someday, when I was out of seasons I, too, just might hear the quiet calling telling me I’d found my place to stay.
Posted in: Essays