On Saturday, I had occasion to take a stroll through some local cemeteries in Storm Lake and Newell, so I took some pictures.
Why? What’s with the morbid interest in parks stuffed with dead people? Well, I was really thinking about two things:
1) Monuments to the dead are a fascinating sort of artwork to represent or remember a life (and, like funerals, may say much more about the needs of the living than the dead).
2) What happens when a monument’s referent (the dearly departed) is forgotten? How does this change what it means for something to be a monument?
In most well-maintained cemeteries, the living care for the monuments to the dead. They refresh the reminder — they add flowers (often timing the addition to “meaningful” dates/times), they add signs or additional symbols, etc. They also tend the monuments themselves (clearing rubbish, repairing damage, sometimes replacing old markers with new ones). A walk through an old but still active cemetery reveals, however, that not all stones are tended, and not all graves are remembered. Newer stones made with newer technologies and more expensive sorts of stone face the weather unbowed while old stones crumble and fall, and their messages are worn from their surfaces or are covered in lichen and dirt.
Even in the best-tended memorial garden, there are fallen, forgotten, and abandoned stones, their messages slowly lost to the living because no one tends the memory.
There actually are people and organizations whose job it is to restore and maintain old cemeteries and burial/memorial parks, and they have a pretty big job. It’s not just a matter of mowing the lawn and re-setting the stones. Sometimes, it requires extensive research in order to determine where graves actually are (as well as where they should be), and there are any number of challenges associated with identifying graves when the markers themselves have faded and broken beyond easy repair.
There’s also a symbolic language that gets lost when markers fade. Different religious symbols, different conventions about the meaning of death, these things are encoded in stone. Some stones are careful to detail exactly how long the person they represent lived (down to the hours and minutes of their age), while others include nicknames. Some have an epitaph, while others (new ones) have laser-etched farm scenes or cats or even embedded photographs of the deceased. The symbols within the symbol are signs of what matters to someone, and when the stone itself ceases to matter to the living, the priorities to which the symbols speak are also lost.
The faded markers and not-quite-tended plant life can be intensely compelling. Who lies here? Does it matter? What story is no longer being told by the worn-down stone? Who bears witness when the small plant once meant to ornament a marker grows deep and large and begins to consume it?