Not your idea of a good time? What, you’d rather be watching a game at Wrigley Field? Shopping along the Magnificent Mile? Strolling through Navy Pier? Tut! Nothing but tourist traps and overpriced houses of hype! And I ought to know – I spend plenty of my time and money at such places! I hadn’t strolled through a cemetery since … I don’t know when. It really can be a fascinating journey through some of the less talked about realms of sociology and psychology if one is paying a modicum of attention.
One site in particular fascinated me. A husband and wife, Petar and Patrija, were buried side by side. The name on the large family marker seemed Polish, yet the marker was etched with a variety of religious icons that were clearly evocative of the Greek Orthodox church. It was apparent that there had been recent visitors – a couple of burned out candles in blue glass had tipped over, probably in the wind, spilling their wax onto the grass. There were two empty beverage containers, arranged symmetrically at either end of the marker. One was a Sierra Mist can. The other was a beer bottle for a brand I’d never heard of – Golden Dab. I leaned closer to read the label and made out the words “Product of Macedonia.” There is no need for me to hypothesize or riff on this scene other than reporting my observations; your own interpretation of these clues has at least as much validity as my own.
I cite this example because it points up the fascinating thing about such a place – it is an environment which houses intensely personal, private, passionate, and perhaps unfathomable feelings and stories. Yet it is an entirely public place. Maybe if I were a more frequent visitor to cemeteries, today’s visit would not have struck me as it did, but everything I saw there seemed to forcefully underline the universality of human experience. I looked at the graves of Jewish families, Catholic families, and, for all I know, atheist families. I read the markers of parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, and even one 5-year old girl named Allison. There were veterans of various wars interred there, some with grand markers of black stone four feet high and six feet long and etched with photographs and decorations. There were also sites with tiny, simple markers flush with the ground. In several of those instances, I had to reach out with the toe of my shoe to gently push back the overgrowth so that I might read the few words engraved thereon. It made me think that these particular sites were rarely, if ever, visited and made me hope that whatever bit of dignity I could impart by revealing their names to the sunlight might make a difference to someone somewhere in the universe.
Unavoidably, it also put me in mind of my own mother’s grave. She died a little over two years ago, and while I have a photograph of her marker in my living room, I have yet to visit the actual site. It’s back in Michigan, a good 5 or 6 hour drive from Chicago, so I have that as a handy excuse, should I ever be in need of one. I’m still not sure what I might get out of such a visit. Maybe nothing at all. But I learned today that I’m going to have to go there and find out; this is one experiment that can’t be conducted in the laboratory of the mind. It has to be conducted in the field – a field with grass and flowers and an occasional breeze.