I volunteer for our cemetery association, functioning as its secretary. If the position sounds sedentary, it is only partially so. Much of the time is spent on my feet, walking around the cemetery with the schematic of the graves, probing plots for unheralded occupants, measuring, marking, and placing flags at the veterans’ graves.
The cemetery dates to 1771, when the resident colonials living in these hills did not care to carry the caskets of their dead very far. Every gesture in those days required backbreaking effort by woman, man and beast. It’s a tiny cemetery, and situated on a hill, too steep and too small to farm. Tucked into the surrounding hills that are a lush green in the warm months, aflame then quenched into a muted brown each autumn, and white and gray during the long winters, it is always beautiful.
It is very quiet in our cemetery, except when the field below is being mown. Mostly there is only birdsong to disturb the silence, but often there is nothing but the sound of the wind. The air is nothing short of delicious, like silk in your lungs; clean and sweet smelling. It is a place for the living as much as the dead, and as I move myself around sorting the rows of headstones into some sort of grid, I find that the special quality of the quiet has entered me; a peaceful intruder.
Our family members are buried there, and we will join them, nestled together in between our mothers. I am aware that I will join them, that I will move from life to join the dead in this cemetery. Being human, I can’t quite imagine it, even though I am certain it will come, as it has and will for everyone.
Still, I am happy rambling around the place I know very well now. Comforted to see the family names of friends and neighbors, saddened to read the names of men who left New England to join the Civil War, and were shipped back to this small and quiet place. There are probably Revolutionary War veterans in the cemetery, but those headstones are illegible and list like aged teeth.
When I first visited the cemetery, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. Near the end of the play, the dead in the town cemetery speak to one another, and one of them, the young protagonist Emily, wants to go back to her life for a day, just a day, to recapture her lost life. The dead warn her not to go, that it won’t be what she hopes for, but she goes. Emily’s visit to the day of her twelfth birthday is agony for her because she can’t go back, of course, and she asks in anguish what we all ask, what we all wish we would do:
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
The Stage Manager, who serves as Greek Chorus, answers:
No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.
I am reminded of Emily’s question every time I visit our cemetery, and leave vowing to realize my life while I live it—every, every minute. Being neither a saint nor a poet, I fail.