One of the purposes of my trip to Southern California was to visit the cemetery where my parents are buried and to clean the grime off of their gravestones. I began this task several years ago and have used it as a springboard to visit old high school-era friends and explore the neighborhoods of my youth.
I have found the need explain to my Darwin-adulating, rational-thinking friends, somewhat awkwardly of course and unable to cloak adequately my embarrassment, that my 21st century consciousness has not been damaged by primitive superstition.. I asssure them that I really do know that below the markers there is a coffin and bones and NOTHING ELSE, and that at night, spirits neither emerge to lament nor serve as oracles, even though the graveyard scene in Thorton Wilder's Our Town had moved me deeply as a child.
So why then should I care about cleaning the markers of dead people whose lives had no particular impact on the wheel of history? Perhaps Abraham Lincoln's resting place deserves to be maintained for future generations, but why the spot belonging to Fred and Hennriette Spangler?
This question led me to the following line of thought. Am I still seeking parental approbation, captive to an unfullfilled desire, an almost primal urge emanating from the jungle of my emotionally entangled childhood? Am I the the prodigal son, who through doing good acts, seek expiation? Well perhaps, but caring for the dead follows a powerful human tradition transmitted over massive lengths of time and appearing in totally diverse cultures. Not every one has needed to slap his chest and cry mia culpa.
The above photo taken outside of San Augustino, Colombia, shows some stones from a plot of several hundred, from an ancient graveyard of elaborate crypts making the site a most treasured archeological landmark. Two thousand years ago giant jaguar-toothed statues of people and animals were placed over the bodies of local dead to narrate something important about the decedent's past or future life or both. In this case this task expresses a complex religious-mythical meaning nearly incomprehensible to us today. Equally significant, it underscores the message that humans, unlike animals except possibly elephants, consider it important to preserve the memory of its people.
So where is the value in remembering the past? Those of you who know me well are aware that I love studying history. It brings me intellectual joy, a sense of community and feeling of continuity. Then there are those people I know who deepen themselves in genealogy research. They take amazing pride in understanding their family tree and derive lasting emotional benefit in feeling connected.
In my observation this week at cemeteries, with only rare exception, tombstones of even recently passed relatives are left to deteriorate. The estate has been settled, the heirs have gotten their deserving due and the benefactor can rot in "somewhere". Even my children neither know anything about my parents, who were their grandparents nor about my grandparents nor, for that matter, much about history at all.
Perhaps these pursuits are out of fashion and have been replaced by other forms of activities that generate equally valuable gratification. To be sure young people have gained other tangible information especially computer skills, but when you hear constantly in the news how our society's ills can be attributed to the decline of the family social unit, isn't the lack of caring and the paucity of knowledge about the chain of events that created a family or the events that led to the present time one more poignant symptom of the decline in respect of fundamental core values of civilization?
Learning history, even family history, contributes to establishing a positive self image. The stories are rife with joy and saddness, of success and failure. They have the potential to evoke genuine compassion of the human condition. From this standpoint I am glad to scrub mom and dad vigorously and to let the light of their time shine through to the future.
Btw. If you like cemeteries please visit Taphophile Tragics. It is a cool site from Australia about the benefits of visiting graveyards.