Thursday, April 30, 2015


On the way home I crossed through the graveyard and met Pete.

Pete doesn't have a last name.  Pete doesn't have a family.  Pete doesn't have a birthday.

Pete has a damaged stone marker that simply reads "Pete"

I knelt at Pete's marker and took a closer look.  I couldn't quite make out years.  18 something to something.

I'd already seen a lot of people who lived through the century's turn, so I had in mind that he died in 19 something.  I couldn't make out the numbers, but there was a slight depression I could feel.  I traced the years with my fingers.  It didn't make sense.  But the only thing I hadn't been able to trace was the 9 in the 19 I assumed began the second year.  I came to realize that there was the barest hint of an eight in that spot.  Nothing left but the cross in the middle of the 8.  Now the date made sense.

Pete was my age when he died in 1891.

How much more weathering before no one knows when he was born or died?

We build monuments to our dead, but then we fail to take care of the monuments.

I talked to some of the ghosts.  I met one who had died in the Civil War.  Told him I wished I had good news, but the battle raged on, we just fought it in different ways now.

Saint Michael's sword had been lost.  A female saint stood with a with a snake at her feet.  I asked the significance, she didn't share it.

A male saint had snake iconography too.  Most of the snake's body was lost.  I only figured out where it had attached because I noticed the tongue remained.

The bridge isn't safe for cars.  It was once a solid structure, I'm sure.  Now only gravity keeps it in place because any connections have rusted out.  The railings will give you a nasty shock if you happen to brush them.  The give is simply disturbing.  One doesn't want to image what would happen to someone who tried to use one to actually support their weight.

We don't do necropolises, our dead don't get their own cities, but we do give them space.  We do give them a home.  We set aside perfectly good, fertile land for them.  We keep it mowed if we have the money and motivation.  We fence people out and zombies in.  But we seldom stop to think about the ones we don't know personally.  We forget them, the only memory engraving or embossing, and we let that weather away until we don't even know what the marker was for anymore.  We assume there's a body somewhere, but whose isn't something we can know.

We don't talk to them.  Seldom do you see someone come into a cemetery and strike up a conversation with a stranger, but given the length of a human life, we'll all be strangers before too long.

Of course some of the deaths were more recent.  A mother and father outlived their son.  He was born at the start of the first World War and died fighting in the second.  The father lived into my mother's lifetime.  The mother longer still.  One wonders if anyone visits these recent dead.  Was their son the only child, or is there another out there who occasionally stops by, says, "Hi," and drops off some flowers.

It's not uncommon for there to be no day indicated for birth or death, but I was struck when I noticed that one woman had died circa 1919.  Circa.  Thereabouts.  Did no one notice?  Did no one think to care?  Did Maria die on the midnight that separates one year from the next and have them flip a coin to see which year they'd say she died in.

Cemeteries are strange places.  We have this great fear of being forgotten so we literally carve our names in stone.  And then... we just drift away.  No one knows these dead.  Not the ones who have been there a long time.  I doubt anyone visits.  A name carved in stone, but what does it mean if it's never read (except for the occasional wanderer)?

It takes effort, time, and money to maintain a cemetery, money that's not always easy to acquire.  Falling into disrepair like the one I was at is nothing compared to ones that aren't mowed.  They become woodland.

The cemetery records are available online, searchable by last name only.  It would be impossible to find Pete.  You can't look up a location.  Even if you do find the person you're looking for, there's precious little information online.  If someone had an inscription, for example, there's no record of it.  Ditto for any art that was done from the most basic to the most elaborate.  How hard would it be to take pictures of the markers, before they fade into illegibility, and connect those pictures with the online information?  Transcribe whatever it says too.

If we cared about these people, who obviously wanted to be remembered if they've carved it in stone, we'd try to do something so that weathering wouldn't erase them from history.

But while some sort of effort to preserve what their markers looked like now might be nice, it still doesn't address the fact that we seldom talk to the dead unless we know them personally.  There's a finite span on how long such people can be around and, after that, it just becomes a useless stone and a place to walk your dog.  (Don't shit on someone's grave, it's considered in poor taste.)

It has been argued that cemeteries are less for the dead than they are for having green space that doesn't need to be justified as a park.

I don't know.

I just know that it seems a sort of a shame that we have all of these people, and all of their names, and they're just forgotten.


  1. I looked up how many people have ever lived on Wikipedia. They said ~100 billion, of whom 60% survived to their first birthday. If every person remembered ten of those 60 billion people, that would be enough for every person in history who lived as much as a year to be remembered.

    Would that that were possible. :/

  2. No one knows these dead. Not the ones who have been there a long time. I doubt anyone visits.

    Sounds like that cemetery could use something like this:

    Tales Among the Tombstones
    Grades 4 to 12, 90 minutes
    Woodlawn Memorial Park
    · People and Environments
    · Heritage and Identity
    · Canada 1800-1850
    · Canada 1850–1890
    · History Identity Culture

    Students will uncover a wealth of information through the fascinating stories of those interred at Guelph’s historic Woodlawn Memorial Park. This guided walking tour and field study includes examination of symbolism, epitaphs and burial practices, along with a hands-on graphing or gravestone rubbing activity.

    The people who were buried there in the 1800s are still remembered. The children of the area (myself included) are told stories about them, about their lives, about why they chose the images they did to decorate their grave markers.