Thursday, February 16, 2006

Self Aggrandizement

Linda Sue and I went for a walk through our local cemetery on Monday. It is easy to discover a quiet there that is not limited to what one can hear; there is a visual peace as well. It’s like a park without playgrounds, and I wouldn’t be against seeing a jungle gym in any graveyard. Wouldn't that be a poignant juxtaposition? I've always thought there to be a kind of a quietude to the sound of children playing. As it was, I found what one typically finds there: markers where the dead are buried, a lot of fine landscaping, and gardeners on lawnmowers. One waved at me.

It is an odd thing, this idea of wanting a marker, a piece of carved stone placed in the ground above where one's remains are buried. It is not in my nature nor my upbringing to have myself remembered in such a way, though I would never pass judgment on anyone who might find meaning in it for themselves. For my loved ones to make that choice on their own behalf is another matter. If they want a place to visit a non-corporeal me after I am gone, I’m all for it - though it strikes me that doing so only grows from your people's habits, like going to Disneyland every summer. As I say, cemeteries were not in my upbringing (Disneyland was), but if I am to be laid to rest in one against my wishes, I hope that I would be remembered with a small, blocky headstone that says hardly anything at all. I may be an epitaph kind of guy in life, but words fall so short in capturing the occassion of death, and are then so permanent when carved in stone.
Humble People
This may be the way most people feel. Linda Sue was disappointed not to find any noteworthy epitaphs. I had to agree. I had hoped to stumble across, at the very least, a stanza or an original quote. Something along the lines of the Leonard Cohen lyric
Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
that Kris Kristofferson promises will go on his headstone. Or even a clever one-liner,
First a cough
Carried me off,
Then a coffin
They carried me off in.
Most of the headstones I read simply had the deceased’s name, their years of life, some filigree and, if from the hand of a more highly paid lapidary, an adoring cherub. Some had short quotes from the bible, or simply a cross - some sidestepped religion and bore the badge of the Rotary or the Odd Fellow. Some were even more elementary, proclaiming “Mother” or “Loving Father,” in the middle of a plot designated only to a last name, and that’s it. These were the folks I would have liked to have known. Those with the means to be buried in the cemetery, yet comfortable enough to leave the specifics to those who know where to go to visit them. Humble people. Quiet lives, leaving a tranquil reminder in their wake.

A Bugle Blast
Blaring across the tranquility, however, as though wealth and power were trying vainly to imitate godly thunder through the most expensive bullhorn money can buy, were the crypts. These fascinated me. Large enough to live in and as necessary as a 50's bomb shelter, they stand as a testament to what one can do with accumulated wealth during one’s final days: self-aggrandize. Admittedly, they are beautiful buildings on first blush, modern tributes to antiquated architecture and stonework. But look past the accomplishment of craft and their gaudy stab at immortalization is hard to miss. In the context of such equality (with death being the ultimate equalizer in life), their final statement about social-economic-political inequality is, for lack of a better term, tacky. It is nothing short of spiritual and philosophical callowness. And in the face of the real McCoy reflecting real achievement - say the pyramids of the pharaohs or Grant’s Tomb - these are McMausoleums. Proselytizing from the mound-tops that they beat the guy two plots over. A bugle blast to get people to look. I assume they’re intended to call out to my reverent, contemplative side, yet all they do is tempt me to pay my respects with a putter and an orange golf ball. They bring out the tacky in me.

Do these buildings stand as hubris? Narcissism to the dying end? Denial of death? In my opinion they do. But I am most taken by the denial of the failure of their original intent. The building, which stands as the final intention of the person who is entombed within, demands that I remember the person entombed within. Its structural size, which exploits the time-honored axiom that “bigger is better,” implores me to honor the size of the person who once was, declaring, “Herein lies someone you must remember, for their power was great!” And yet it closes its eyes to the fact that it is completely in my power to not remember. I can, as I suppose I have chosen to do here, not honor them, not remember them, at least not on their terms. I can forget them. And having done this, aren’t they much like a desperate bugle blast hoping someone else will come along and look?


Blogger Gerric Duncan said...

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley

February 20, 2006 10:44 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home