I've been familiar with cemeteries since watching Gramma Palmer tended the graves of our family members in Springfield, Ohio. Every Sunday after church we would visit Ferncliffe Cemetery. She kept a pair of scissors in her satchel that she would use to trim the overgrown grass back from the edges of the tombstones. It would be the most like watching both an artist putting final touches on a painting, and seeing a person in a quasi-reflective swoon chatting with the spirit of the model – or in this case the deceased, that I would ever witness in my life. It was a dance for her between what time she had left in this world and keeping connected with those who left her behind. For me though, I would never speak with dead that I had known while alive – except until Grant.
When I was 18 years old I sold all of my possessions to finance a pilgrimage to England. My first destination in London was the grave of the visionary poet William Blake. I deny ever having been obsessed with graveyards; I am just drawn to them. I am comfortable in them. Most of my life I would just play the touristy game of pompously and poetically strolling amongst tombstones, looking for my own name on a marker or try to find someone that had been born on, or died on my birthday.
The first and only time this happened was shortly after I married a young woman from Ireland. I brought her to live in Mendocino where we found buried in the Protestant hillside graveyard, her namesake – "Elizabeth Anne Barnett, native of Ireland" who had died in the late 1800's. Not only did they share the same name, they had traveled the same geographical path in life. An emigrant woman from Ireland deposited into a northern Californian outpost. We took pictures and felt a preternatural sense of destiny; did she drown? Could she have been murdered? Or maybe she died in childbirth… Now that would have been too freaky to handle because a preacher's son in Dublin had prophesied that my wife was going to die giving birth to her second son, a child she would actually never have.
There is a small cemetery near the town that I live in. It is an unusual looking cemetery, poised on a low dirt hill on the outskirts – magnificently shrouded by ancient oaks and shadowy sycamores. There are no lawns, (no foliage grows here as there is a year round cover of dead leaves on the ground), no vaults or crypts, but lots and lots of people are buried there (a local historian claims that over 1100 bodies are interred yet eyeballing the grounds one would find it difficult to believe that there are more than 200 markers). The acknowledged first modern burial was that of six year old Callie Chrisman in 1861. Who knows how many other people may have been deposited there prior to her. Archaeologists some centuries from now surely will conjecture otherwise.
A person that I actually knew in high school is buried in the Alamo Cemetery; Grant Pearson. He died about ten days before his twenty-first birthday in a motorcycle accident on a local road; twenty-six years ago. After I returned from living in Ireland and I discovered that Grant had died I started to visit his gravesite. I had been to the grounds on only a few occasions during my youth; usually after dark, usually trying to get a friend to accompany me so I could further establish my identity of being spiritually austere. No one could figure out why I "liked it" there. And most visits were abrupt – "Why the hell do you like it here?" I find it peaceful I would contest. "We are all going to end up here someday, aren't we?" The mystique became real for me; personal after Grant was buried here. I knew someone dead and they were living here now.
That my father had died when I was eleven and that he was buried in a cemetery (back in Springfield) had never impacted me until one afternoon in a vacant lot in Farnborough, England. It was the summer of 1979 and I had been walking the streets of London barefoot playing a flute like a young and wild Ian Anderson. I experienced déjà vu frequently on this trip finding myself in many situations or locations that I could recount having seen before from entries in my dream journal.
I awoke from a dream one morning after sleeping on the porch of an Anglican church in Farnborough; gravestones that were hundreds of years old scattered around the grounds. In the dream I saw myself sleeping in a field of tall grass next to a white picket fence. A large vulture flew into the dream and landed on the other side of the fence from me. It then craned its neck through the slats of the fence and started to gouge chunks of flesh from my body. In my sleep I flinched defensively from the bird's biting beak but as I watched my body in the dream I saw that I lay motionless.
Do you know sometimes how you can awake from a dream and know exactly what it means? I've developed an interpretive awareness of my dream's meanings over the years of my life, especially since this tantamount threshold dream. Well, I didn't know in my mind exactly what this dream meant but my soul was shaken and I went through the first hours of that day feeling inundated by disturbing emotions; vulnerable to some unveiling awareness.
At noon, after I wandered the streets of Farnborough with a dire sense of impending doom "it" struck me. A surge of emotion erupted and I started to cry. I started to cry so violently that I had to hide – there was a gap in a hedge that led into a vacant lot. I leapt through it and fell to the ground, heart heaving and roared out moans of anguish. I had found the suppressed and buried pain; the source of mourning that I had never expressed for my father after he died seven years prior when I was eleven. It felt like forever but I probably only laid there crying for five or ten minutes. I had heard children in a nearby yard laughing and playing and noticed how they suddenly silenced after hearing the startled commotion I made. I didn't notice but maybe they were looking at me while I lay there, writhing. I had never shed a tear for him before.
Grant is the first dead person I've sat at the grave of and have spoken to. I'm forty-seven years old now and have been visiting him regularly over the past twenty-two years. Normally I would never go out of my way to see him. I would usually wait until I was pretty depressed and really needed someone to talk to. Then after dark I would sneak into the grounds with two bottles of Guinness stout; I would sit and lean against the sycamore tree by his wood-carved marker – one bottle for me, the other I would leave for him like flowers anyone else would bring to a grave.
Now, since finding Find-A-Grave.com I see a whole new world of research opening up for me in which I can travel to Ohio to begin the lengthy documentation of my descendants that are all interred there. I am very excited at the prospects of this project.