Consider, friend, as you pass by: 

As you are now, so once was I. 

As I am now, you too shall be. 

Prepare, therefore, to follow me.”

huxley-cemetery

Air too sweet to inhale… ground too soft to tread upon… landscape too serenely beautiful to gaze at… Northern Cardinal song too bittersweet to gather.

If ever a place inhabits a mortal emotion, Huxley Cemetery in Hillsburg Ontario is my soulful home… and for reasons I may never truly understand.

The sense of calm, peace, reverence that seeps into me when I pass through its old wrought-iron gates is mystical and surreal… unexplainable.

I pass through the gate contemplatively, the soft grass beneath my feet still slightly damp with dew, inhaling the wild rose scent in the slightly humid air, even this early in the morning. Looking outward, the surrounding hills roll softly towards the horizon with luxuriant green crop growth.

In the stillness, I feel my grandmother Maggie Miller’s work-leathered hand take mine gently and walk me beneath the green, billowy elm trees, between the mixture of tall and squat headstones, her unearthly voice is the mild breeze that brushes my cheeks like a delicate kiss.

The only contact I’ve ever shared with my mother’s Mom is here in Huxley Cemetery, her heart long stopped beating before my birth. But it’s here that I feel her presence more than anywhere else.

She speaks to me in a hush as she points, “This is your Uncle Lloyd’s resting spot, he was such a scamp as a young boy, a smile that would melt any girl’s heart, including his own mother’s.” Uncle Lloyd was my favourite uncle with his gentle laughter and kind heart. Comfortable.

Despite the early morning and not so hot just yet, a couple of noisy cicadas call back and forth to each other from up in the elms. Early risers. Slender spokes of sunshine shoot through the tree branches highlighting script on some of the solid, upright markers.

We wander by many Miller, Gray, Mullin, and O’Reilly memorial headstones, some upright and statuesque, others cold and squat dark granite, all weathered but the carved names and dates still easily readable in the bright sunshine. All the Janes and Williams and Patricks and Sarahs, a litany of Irish heritage.

“Here’s your Great-Aunt Jennie’s – my big sister’s – resting place. Jennie and her husband Bill ran a nearby fish hatchery for years.” I remembered back to summer trips to visit Aunt Jennie and the ponds filled with wiggling trout, like moist earthworms on a driveway after an evening rain.

As a child I visited Huxley Cemetery on more than one occasion: annual visits with Mom and Dad to absorb the presence of Mom’s parents, Will and Maggie, their brothers and sisters; cousins dead from untreatable consumption and tragic farm accidents; funeral processions for Aunt Mabel and Uncle Lloyd.

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Myself with sister Betty and brother Robert visiting our grandparents’ grave.

Cemeteries – graveyards – are places to cry and smile and regret and laugh and reflect. Nowhere else can you discern the presence of your own ancestral past and a perspective of your personal vista laying before you better than in a cemetery.

Your focus becomes concentrated and consumed by thoughts of those you knew, or know of, and the people they must have been. Ordinary folks that feel almost legendary because their names are cast in stone like Napoleon or Shakespeare.

Merely knowing that they lived and breathed, laughed, farted, argued and ate lunch in the same way in their day that we do in this minute is humbling.

“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais

Over the years, I’ve savoured small snapshots in time leisurely roaming through graveyards of varying fashions:

… the gleaming bleached-white above-ground Havana cemetery that is as large as a small city.

… glass-fronted nichos in Cusco, Peru, little mortuary apartment buildings of the deceased where personal treasures are displayed as a poignant reminder of the person that once was.

… Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Stoney Creek, Ontario where my Mom and Dad lie resting on a smooth grassy rise.

… the Civil War cemeteries in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where 150 years back, just 3 days of battle produced a frightening 50,000 casualties, close to 8,000 dead, row after row of identical grave markers.

… the worn graveyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia where many of the 2,000 victims of the 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion lie buried.

… the ancient Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where 1 million souls are laid to rest including Jim Morrison, Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf.

Yup, I’m kind of a tombstone tourist.

Despite their ghoulish morbid reputation, graveyards – outdoor warehouses of expired humanity – hold an appeal for me for a lot of reasons. Here are just 8:

  1. Park-like. The pastoral beauty of majestic trees and grand sweeping lawns provides visual and sensual meditation, a place of tranquil repose for both the dead and the living.
  2. Reminder of our own mortality – it’s often said to us that we should live our lives as if we were going to die tomorrow. No place on earth is a better reminder of our mortality and the need to feel gratitude daily than a cemetery filled with long departed souls.
  3. Reminder of our loved ones – a cemetery takes us to the central heart of our lives, our heritage. Our daily activities take us far away from the ones we knew and treasured. In a graveyard, our hearts and heads return in reflection to our roots. Our own lives would never have come to be without the names we read on the grave markers.
  4. Great to see our enemies gone. Yes, we should all love our fellow human travellers, and especially so after their passing… I suppose. But… I can’t be quite so altruistically giving and so there are names carved on tombstones that are welcome additions: sometimes miserable sots who made our existence a trial, or those whom, in true evil, belong on the fiery road to hell. I’ll refrain from mentioning names here, but we all have a shortlist of those we’d prefer to see swept into the “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” file.
  5. Peace. Since cemeteries are generally so quiet, they’re a good place to go when I’m seeking serenity.
  6. Beauty of mankind’s constructions. Often set next to beautiful old churches, graveyards tell of the amazing skill and creative force that humanity engenders – limestone grey church walls rising to the sky filled with rainbow hues of stained glass, sunlight streaming through to the sacred place within. Then too the variety of grave markers – the stone used, the lamenting… sometimes bright… messages and poetry that pay testament to the passed.
  7. Stimulates our sense of ghouls and ghosts and fear. We mortals, still of the flesh and blood, derive a bizarre and supernatural pleasure occasionally from those things that make the hair stand up on the back of our necks, the unnatural thrill of plunging down a rollercoaster of containable fear.
  8. Focus on the Future – There’s nothing quite like standing in a cemetery – a bibliography of the past – surrounded by reminders of the fragility of your existence and pondering your future direction. You have a silent audience of departed souls to remind you that your choices matter.

One day you and I will possibly… probably… make an irrevocable last visit to a grassy graveyard, captured for eternity in a solid wooden box, a brassy urn  – our final stop on the tour, walking silently in the footsteps of our grandparents…

And as much as I love graveyards, I still play out my grand plan for holding that last visit at bay consisting of the 3 C’s… lots of Chocolate, Caffeine, and Carnal Activity (is that akin to Wine, Women and Song?).

Finally, I’ll leave you today with an old Canadian folk song (1864) that I sing at family gatherings in honour of my late grandmother Margaret Ann (Maggie) Gray-Miller:

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie
To watch the scene below-
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie
As we used to long, long ago

The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie
Where first the daisies sprung
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie
Since you and I were young

And now we are aged and grey, Maggie
And the trials of life are nearly done
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie
When You and I were young

A city so silent and lone, Maggie
Where the young, and the gay, and the best
In polished white mansions of stone, Maggie
Have each found a place to rest
Is built where the birds used to play, Maggie
And join in the songs that we sung
For we sang as lovely as they, Maggie
when you and I were young.

Oh, they say we are aged and grey, Maggie
As sprays by the white breakers flung
But to me, you’re as fair as you were, Maggie
When you and I were young

 

“I told you I was ill.”

Spike Milligan

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