"The greatest mystery
is unsheathed reality itself."
For a number of reasons, people tend to avoid cemeteries. Often burial grounds are either associated with a feeling of loss and sadness or, for those with overactive imaginations, a general creepiness fueled by too many campfire stories and low budget Hollywood horror films. Cemeteries are not exactly a walk in the park, yet it’s undeniable they maintain an important role in our society by enriching our lives with an awareness of ones brevity and connecting us to those who have gone before.
Call me strange, but I love cemeteries. They remind me of a short story anthology you would find at a garage sale—a little weather beaten, a bit out of date, but full of quickly read tales waiting to be discovered. Only, these tales aren’t fiction, they really happened. These tales are full of people just like you and I, who experienced a gamut of life’s events, who knew what it was to laugh, to cry, to love, to dream... Perhaps that is what makes them even more powerful. Who doesn’t love a true story!
Just up the road from where my grandparents lived, there is an old cemetery and church that dates back to the 1840’s. My great grandparents are buried there, as well as a great aunt and uncle. When I was younger, I remember roaming the cemetery after Sunday service, fascinated by the old stones and inscriptions. Sometimes I’d pick wildflowers that grew on the fringes and secretly (so that my parent’s wouldn’t think me crazy) leave them on graves of strangers. I’d wonder who the people were and if they were among the many that once filled the small church. And looking for some sort of connection to these people who lived a century before, I’d always think about the seat I’d sat in that particular Sunday (since the seats were relics themselves) and wonder if this person or that person might have sat in the same seat during their lifetime.
Not too long ago, I had the chance to return to the Captina Cemetery and do a little exploring. I visited the graves of my relatives, then made my way down the hill to faintly remembered graves. There’s a large stone with the names of three children and their parents, all who died on the same day. Larger granite stones mark graves from the 50’s and 60’s and fractured stones that are no longer decipherable lie stacked on the edge where the woods reclaim the land. Halfway down the hill, I came across two stones dated 1834. I didn’t remember the stones from my childhood and was surprised by the well preserved inscriptions. The first stone said “In memory of Nancy, consort of Harrison Massie, who departed this life March 23rd 1834, Aged 23yrs, 2 months 19 days.” A similar stone sat beside Nancy’s stone. “In memory of Roxanne, daughter of Harrison and Nancy Massie, who departed this life Aug 23rd, 1834, Aged 5 months, 15 days.” It took me a second to do the math before I realized the mother had died after giving birth to Roxanne and the newborn, for whatever reason, died 5 months after her mother. Curious, I searched the area for the husband and father, Harrison Massie, but his stone wasn’t there.
It was starting to get dark and I reluctantly walked back up the hill to leave the cemetery. On the way home, I thought about the two stones and the one that was missing, finding it strange that sometimes all we will know about a person’s lifetime is the date of their birth and death. I was reminded of why, when I was younger, the old cemetery held such a drawing power for me. The simple stones of people like Nancy and Roxanne Massie were puzzling in that there was so much more I would like to know about them, but will never know. Likewise these strangers, with their eternal secrets, bring us closer to something beyond ourselves—a time and place we can only imagine.
As a writer, I value these experiences, the kind that draw me to people and places I know nothing of. I love the guesswork and the challenge it provides. There is something significant about stretching the mind and imagination to discover things that are known and unknown. Perhaps that is why I am passionate about travel and experiencing new cultures. As a Spanish proverb says, “Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.”
For a writer, it’s not only about keeping the mind active, it’s about telling the story. But we do strange things when we find an experience or idea we want to set to paper. We boil it down until we are sure there is nothing but the richest of contents left, but at the end of the process feel that there is still some ingredient missing. We add a little of this and a little of that. Still, it isn’t quite right. After time has cooled the strangely colored brew, we remember why we began writing the story in the first place. At this point you have to ask —do I venture into the unknown or do I stick with the facts? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing foolish about putting your imagination to work, but sometimes truth is the missing link, the element that is most inspiring.
Next time you happen across a cemetery, or a newspaper article, or an event in your day to day life that captivates you, discover the poetry in what is true. If you find you are stuck after too much imaginative additives, return to the place where you began—the truth behind the inscription. Perhaps in these mysteries, in the recognition that real life is often stranger than fiction, the greatest story lives.