Cemeteries and the Tangible Past

A few weeks ago, I went to the 26th biennial conference for the Nordic Association for American Studies (NAAS). The conference theme, “Monuments,” reflected our current cultural moment, a moment in which we have collectively engaged in conversations about both physical and metaphorical monuments, especially as they relate to the narratives we tell ourselves. Today, I want to take a moment and reflect upon one of the keynote speeches, Richard Rodriguez‘s “Stone Ghosts: Deconstructing and Reconstructing American Memory.” I have many problems with some of things that Rodriguez argued; however, those are not the aspects I wish to focus on today. Rather, I wish to look at the larger existential thoughts that he presented.

Rodriguez framed his keynote around the need for physical, tangible reminders of the past, specifically spaces that commemorate those we have lost. The personal, intimate spaces that Rodriguez focused on were cemeteries, spaces where we remember the past and connect, tangibly, to it through the grave markers and the proximity to those who once lived among us.

The continued wealth, education, and heath disparities arise from the tragedies of the past and the continued policies that they buttress.

Through personal anecdotes, Rodriguez spoke about the need for such sites, especially as the US moves more and more towards cremation, a process that removes the physical connection to the past and releases it into the surrounding environment, creating an abstract relation to what has come before. In 1968, only about 3% of people in the US were cremated. In 2018, that percentage has skyrocketed to 50%. What does this say? What does it say that cremation has denied mourners that private, tactile connection with the dead?

Rodriguez related how one of his friends passed away and decided to be cremated. A family member took the ashes, and Rodriguez and others do not know if the family member scattered them or has them somewhere else. When another friend approached Rodriguez and asked about where the grave site was so he could pay his respects, Rodriguez told him to get in his car, take the highway to the coast, and look out over the ocean because that is probably where the ashes would be.

While the person could connect with the deceased by gazing out over the Pacific Ocean, this abstract, almost ephemeral, act does not provide him with a specific, tangible site of mourning. Rather, it becomes something much less accessible in some ways. Cemeteries are sites of memory. They are spaces, mostly accessible by all, where people can come, walk around, and connect, in some physical way, with death.

Haworth

I think about this every time I pass a cemetery. During this past year, I visited the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. The first thing I encountered as I approached the parsonage was the cemetery, filled with headstones in such close proximity to one another that I would have difficulty walking amongst them. These monuments represent people who lived and died at Haworth, many during a period when Haworth had some of the worst sanitation in England, just behind White Chapel in London.

The parsonage sits right in the middle of this cemetery, and when you look out of the parsonage windows, all you can see are headstones. I can imagine the Brontë siblings gazing out at death, so close they could touch it and inhale it, taking it into themselves. The space, before Patrick Brontë arrived, did not have any trees. So it must have looked much different, much more desolate and dreary.

Cimetière du Montparnasse

Along with the Brontë Parsonage, I had the opportunity to wander around the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris, a 47 acre space with at least 35,000 graves. I went there looking for the past. I went there looking for Samuel Beckett, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, and more. I went there looking to connect, in some way, with these figures. Even with a map, it took me a long time to find their graves, and as I searched, I encountered many other people whose loved ones had erected monuments in memory of them, some very extravagant, some very simple. These monuments epitomized the tangible connection that some need to the past, to the loved ones that have passed on from this world. They signify the private and the public. They are for the living, not the dead.

As I looked for Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I encountered a woman walking around. I figured that she was searching for the same monuments that I was, looking for some connection with those buried within Paris. I saw her stop, stand in front of grave, and take a picture. I walked around so as not to disturb her moment of connection with de Beauvoir and Sartre (they are buried in the same space). After she left, I walked over and gazed at the space. The headstone contained countless lip prints from people who had kissed it, leaving their own mark of reverence upon the site. Along with these, there were small stones on the grave itself, holding down transit tickets and other pieces of paper. These mementos signify the tangible connection that visitors had to the site. For them, it became a pilgrimage, a destination to visit, a physical, unaltered, link to de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Rodriguez expanded out from cemeteries and these personal monuments to public spaces. He discussed issues in San Francisco and touched on Confederate monuments. This is where, at times, I disagreed with his positions, yet there were points, among these discussions, that stuck out. For one, he mentioned that he is an ancestor of Hernando Cortes, the sixteenth century Spanish Conquistador. He stated that if Cortes did not arrive, he would not be here today. He connected this statement with friend of his who is a descendant of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. I find this line of reasoning interesting. It is ostensibly true, but that truth does not preclude any interrogation or confrontation with that past?

He also posited that our moves to remove monuments serves as a way for us, in the present, to excise our own demons by saying, “We’re not as bad as these conquerors or slave holders were.” Here, again, I agree. It seems, to me, that some use these moments to claim, in some way, a moral high ground in relation to the past. However, what they fail to do, though, is rectify that past. They acknowledge that their ancestors stole the land where they reside from Indigenous peoples. Yet, they do not do anything to assist the descendants of Indigenous peoples. They change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, yet they continue to Not do anything for Indigenous communities. This is the disconnect.

Most profoundly, through his line of argument, Rodriguez gets to the point where he pointed out that we are the beneficiaries of tragedy. For him, we need to recognize this, and that seems to be all. I wholeheartedly agree that we, all of us, in some manner, are the beneficiaries of tragedy. We continue to sow the seeds of the past. Where I disagree, though, is that we just need to recognize this fact and move on with our lives. How can we do that? Recognizing this link is extremely important, but what do we do with it? That is the question we must ask. How do we repay those who suffered, and continue to suffer, because of these tragedies? Do we simply erect new monuments and excise our own demons? Do we work out ways through reparations or other programs to assist those still effected by this past? To me, this is the best avenue.

Cimetière du Montparnasse

I know that issues arise when discussing how to remedy the affects of these tragedies. The legal constructions of race make reparations a particularly difficult subject. Yet, something needs to be done. The continued wealth, education, and heath disparities arise from the tragedies of the past and the continued policies that they buttress. I do not know what to do. I do not claim to know what to do. I just know we need to have serious, thoughtful, discussions about what we should do.

What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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