A wonderful day for a stroll in the… graveyard?
My eyes ache and my head throbs from excessive screen time. All the while, the sun is shining and the birds are singing melodiously, framed by my bedroom window.
I shut my laptop, bury my head in my hands, rub my eyes and decide that I need some fresh air.
There are a few options that lie before me: I can stroll around the local recreation ground, although I’ve completed the circuit so many times in the past few days I feel like I’m competing in Formula One.
Secondly, I could go to the forest, but I’m in a contemplative mood and I don’t want to converse with fellow walkers.
And then there is a third prospect: I could wander around the local graveyard.
It’s something that is usually met with curiosity and not a small amount of judgement; when a colleague asks what you got up to on Sunday, they will meet you with a raised eyebrow if you reply that you spent it in the churchyard. But there exists those who are drawn to, and not deterred by, cemeteries.
Believe it or not, there is even a word for those interested in cemeteries: Taphophiles (no, not Goths). Whilst I wouldn't go quite as far as labelling myself as such, I believe that there is something to be said for stone stalking.
Unfortunately, many believe it is morbid to keep company with the dead, unless you are called there by obligation, whether that be to add flowers to a loved ones grave or to attend a funeral; the graveyard should only be attended by appointment according to this view, never in leisure.
This is symptomatic of an attitude endemic to the West: We flee from any thought or discussion of death, as if acknowledging our mortality invites danger. As I’m sure you can guess by the title of this piece, I disagree with this.
Below, I would like to humbly submit a few defences of wandering graveyards:
We allow the dead to live again
Firstly, there is something beautiful about standing contemplatively above a person long deceased, and by doing so extending their legacy; perhaps mine are the first eyes to fall on their tombstone in years, or even the first mind to have processed their name for a decade.
They say that we die twice: The first time physically, and the second time when people say our names for the last time. Every time I stroll a graveyard, I feel as if I extend someones immaterial presence on this earth, and let them live, if only in my mind, for another day.
We are reminded of our own mortality
Secondly, in the tradition of Memento Mori, it is important to remember that we are finite beings who will one day cease to be, at least in our current form.
It seems strange that we can forget our own mortality, and yet we often do; in youth, death seems like something that happens to other people, not us.
Whilst fixating on death is unhealthy, fleeing from it is equally so; in between these two extremes we must learn to confront our mortality and cherish life in light of it. The graveyard is a meditative place which encourages us to come face-face with our finite natures.
By confronting death, we put life into perspective
That assignment at work which is keeping you awake, or that grudge against your partner, loses its power when we view it from a graveyard. In short, death is humbling, and minimises or magnifies the importance of the things that occupy our minds.
Family, friendship and love are elevated in importance as one realises that the fallen are remembered not by their job titles, but by their human relations. We are Sons, Fathers and Husbands in death, never Bosses or Juniors.
It is a way to show appreciation for sacrifice
Whilst looking upon a soldiers grave, I often wonder if they tried to picture the people they were sacrificing their lives for; children of a future generation who would taste liberty because of their service. It must have stung to have known that their youth was the price for a future generations freedom, like ants offering themselves up for the colony.
Whether or not they did, I believe it is important that we take time out of our lives to picture them and their struggles.
The desire to do so is motivated by the same impulse that leads us to have minute silences for the fallen. In short, taking time out of our day to think about deceased soldiers is a small way to show that they are not forgotten; that even amidst the joys of the world they fought to realise, we still have time to think of them.
Will You Join Me?
In short, whilst I can understand initial hesitation at the idea of wandering through graveyards, I hope I have articulated how it can be a powerful experience which reframes our own perception of the world and our place in it. Next time you pass a church, or catch a row of tombstones in the corner of your eye, consider turning into the place of the dead, and you might just learn something about living too.