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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Memory Stones

Sometimes when we are bored and seeking a small adventure my best friend, or her daughter, and I will go to a cemetery and look around for interesting bits of sculpture, inscriptions, spirits and whatnot. It is normally in the fall that the Oak Park Cemetery is most vibrant and beautiful. In Summer the canopy is so thick and green that getting good shots with my amateur camera is almost impossible. Not only that, the bright fake flowers adorning the grave sites is always unnerving for me. Nothing screams insincerity like fake flowers. But rules are rules and most cemeteries these days don't let you plant real flowers.  So there is that. I've always liked Oak Park because of the variety of sculpture, mostly Victorian Era. Oak Park is also home to most of the Founding Fathers of Traverse City and was always the "Catholic Cemetery".

I grew up Catholic and went to a lot of funerals with my dad, though not very often to attend a graveside service. Death and I are not strangers, but we aren't buds either. Death is just another thing; like too many relatives in the house at Christmas, and ignored birthdays.  It comes at the end of Life, requires a shindig, public lamenting and then...

The "And then" always bothers me. And then often is a few years of dedicated visitation that tapers off as grief gives way to a life resumed. Following the lack of visitation there is, for some, a period of guilt that is oft overcome with the thought that "Well, he's dead. What does he care if I don't go?" The "And then" for the dead is a physical decay. But how many of those dead stay with the body, limited in spirit to the confines of the cemetery? And for how long?

I can not imagine a fate worse than to be trapped with a useless body and watching parade after parade of histrionics when grief is most poignantly felt then great swaths of time when no one comes to visit anymore. Then, when the traffic slows to the slightest tickle the gawkers and ghost hunters arrive to coax ghoulish cries. Of course, on occasion, one can watch the malicious destruction of property as grave stones are smashed by normally idle hands. I don't know what is worse. The immediate shock and grief or the "and then"... being ignored.

As one of the troupe of curiosity seekers, hoping to encounter and not encounter entities in the cemetery, drooling over the artistry in the markers, marveling at the age of my city and lost in the solitude the quietness of a cemetery in daylight engenders, I try to keep the murmur to a dull roar. I can neither see nor hear the dead. It is rare that I can feel the presence of those who have passed and got stuck here. And, I try not to disturb a site that is clearly visited by family and friends. I will right a potted plant that has toppled and been ignored by the grounds keeping staff. And I avoid freshly turned soil, giving it a wider berth than is likely necessary. Sometimes though, I can not help but get up close and personal.

Normally, I do not delve deep into this cemetery. Most of the truly interesting sculptural pieces are near the front on the 8th street side. I'd been told it is the oldest part of the cemetery. I had also been told it was the "Catholic" cemetery. So this time, with the younger friend, we went deeper. Much to my surprise, I found a Jewish section. Traverse City has always had a very small Jewish population. At one point large enough for it's own temple but which has waned in recent decades. The Jewish synagogue is now part of the courthouse complex. There are still Jewish families in town, worshiping alongside other faiths, and tending the graves of family members.

Most of the stones in the Hebrew section were covered in any number of small pebbly stones such as the picture above. It is uniquely Jewish. A good explanation is here. Depending on the traditions one grew up with it is either to keep golems at bay, to bind the soul to the earth or to mark a connection between visitor and the visited.  My gut tells me that this is a marker to mean, "I thought of you". Flowers die, stones are more permanent. And it seems like one of those long term things that Jewish a good at when it comes to zakor , which means "remember". Leaving the stone is like leaving a bit of yourself to stay with the decedent.  Somehow, being there helped me feel a bit better about Shayne, even though he is buried in Chicago. It also made me miss him so much more as we come upon the anniversary of his passing, and leaving the marker of his birthday last month.

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