Black metal spears, their tips pointed skyward, line Grove Street in legions. They form a fence, and behind them are graves. One might wonder, trudging along the sidewalk, what invisible army it is that holds these spears. One might feel grateful that they protect us from the dead.
On occasion, though, it is well to seek out the dead, to convene with their humble silence. More perspective, as it is called, can perhaps be gleaned from an hour in the cemetery than from a whole semester abroad. England and China have their charms, but in a cemetery you are looking at your certain destiny. Dust.
I approached the gate and found it closed. There was a bench nearby. I took a seat and looked past the sable spears to clusters of tombstones, some standing proudly erect, others leaning as if to bow. The bodies beneath them lay starkly parallel amid the dirt of the earth. “The scepter, learning, physic, must/ All follow this, and come to dust.” Shakespeare. A leaf dropped to the ground. Fall was encroaching.
Students with their books and backpacks paced along the sidewalk. Why — if learning comes to dust — do they work so hard to learn? What are we doing here? “Gathering rosebuds while we may,” one might propose. But if rosebuds, too, amount to dust, they are rubbish, they are empty. Something there is that wants immortality.
I spotted an earthworm wriggling in the dirt beside my feet. It shrank and stretched, squirmed and strove, getting nowhere. When the wind picked up and pelted it with dirt, the worm coiled for a moment, then exploded into a furious bout of twitching. It seemed to shout, with Lear, “Blow, winds! Rage! Blow!” And I, with Lear, inquired, “Is man no more than this?”
Behind me, a bum with a bad cough rummaged the trash bin for cans or bottles or food. He hobbled away with his plastic bags, coughing to the sidewalk. The wind blew, and the tombstones stood at their varied angles.
The modern world dismisses talk of death as morbid, macabre. We have done all we can to push it to the outermost regions of our consciousness, to think of it — in those brief and rare moments when we do think of it — as something distant, something vague, something curable (we hazily hope) by science. But better not to think of it at all. Better to transform it into something that happens in movies for our entertainment. Better to pack every instant of our lives with cell phones and iPods and laptops, books and careers and unending chatter.
Regular contact with the natural world — its flora, fauna, cycling seasons — has a tendency to inspire reflection on death. Modern man, therefore, surrounds himself with artifices. Most religions, in their concern with the afterlife, have a tendency to demand continual awareness of the looming grave. Modern man, therefore, prefers to fashion his own religion, subscribing to feel-good doctrines or no doctrines at all. God may be dead, but death remains alive as ever. We defend ourselves with artifice. We cling to diversion.
Prince Hamlet refrains from self-slaughter only out of “the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.” Pascal relates, “When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after …” The sentence must fall silent. But modern man dodges this silence. It is unfashionable to worry about the undiscover’d country. It is in poor taste to be stunned to speechlessness at the prospect of eternity.
The danger of the cemetery, in our time, is not that the dead will leave their graves and beleaguer the living. The danger is that the living will leave their diversions and consider the dead. The black spears keep a careful guard.
“They shall lie down alike in the dust,” says Job, “and the worms shall cover them.” I had lost sight of my earthworm. Last I saw, it was hiding in the shade of a crumbling brown leaf. Its feeble body, today, can’t bear the sun for long. With my pen I rummage the ground, turning over dead leaves, poking dirt. No worm. It is buried in the earth, no doubt. Goodbye, brother worm.
Leaves in their final gasp of greenness rustled; a squirrel scampered among the graves. Among the graves, on a day when the gate was open, I stared at the tombstone of Baby Alice. She lived centuries ago. She lived less than two years’ time. Beside the tombstone, someone had placed a teddy bear. It was tattered, ragged, worn down by storms and wind. It was lovely.
How bizarre a cemetery is! How strange that men should bury one another, should entertain superstitions about ghouls and souls and afterlives. What is it in men that induces them to dream of infinity? What is it that prompts Hamlet to fear the next life? How is it that feeble-bodied brutes evolved from apes should have in common — whatever their culture, whatever their historical period — some sense of that dimension transcending their momentary dust-bound lives.
I rose from my seat. Along the sidewalk, I passed beneath the shadow of the entrance gate. It towers high above the ranks of black spears. On another day I will enter the gate. For now I study its proclamation. THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED. What absurdity! What a scandal, what an embarrassment to our enlightened campus!
I marched along the sidewalk, happy to think that the worm, very soon, will thrust its head out of the dirt and into the sunlight.
Bryce Taylor is a junior in Silliman College.