Sunday, February 18, 2007

Between Two Pasts and Two Places


On a bike ride this week I stopped by a cemetery I had never noticed before and took a small set of photos. It's a weird one, with graves not particularly well kept and arranged at random in certain areas. Despite an epic spot overlooking the lake, there's no grass or trees to beautify it -- this is not one of those park-like cemeteries.

One corner has a only infant graves, made even more depressing by the obvious neglect and lack of care in putting the graves in to begin with. One was unmarked, and some had a homebuilt feel with simple, rough concrete. The one pictured here had a sort of plaster headstone that had deteriorated so much that you could barely make out the year 1943 on it. Some momentos and gifts were scattered around, like this tiny trumpet in the dirt.

It was a reflective stop. One thing that struck me immediately was this perception that graves have an inherent permanence, marking our spot and storing our bones for a posterity we think will last hundreds of years. Maybe we even think we'll be remembered better when our names, dates and scattered words are etched in marble.

In this cemetery, graves in some rows were obviously deteriorating, and most weren't more than 50 or 70 years old. Has it only taken a few generations for these memorials to be forgetten? Have the people's lives they represent been forgotten too?

The second impression I had there took longer to emerge, but it was much heavier when it hit me. It was very simple: I realized that these were not my ancestors. The implication was to know that the history and landscape of this place aren't really mine, either. I'm basically a tourist here, disconnected from my own dead, my own history, and my own landscapes.

I can visit the graves of my ancestors in the prairies and try to connect my extended history to the present in some abstract way, but that makes me feel like a tourist there. I'm already disconnected from that past and place, creating a sort of limbo that I hadn't thought about enough.

I've already adopted this landscape and I'm creating my own history here, but I had to acknowledge that it might take generations to be known and remembered (and eventually forgotten) in this place.

4 comments:

Angelo said...

Very thought provoking post, Jer. It resonated with many thoughts and ruminations I've had over the last ten-twelve years, particularly now as Esther and I are on the cusp of becoming a family. (Different in the sense that her roots are here, but similar since your immediate family has, more or less, relocated.) Are we planting a flag out here?

Whenever I've visited the graveyard on trips to Rosenort I've felt some bedrock connection to the place as I see the number of EIDSE headstones. Since my earliest connection to my own mortality I imagined mine would one day be among them. Even when we were first married and living in BC it was assumed that I'd go "home" if the worst should happen. Nowadays, I'm not so sure.

Garth said...

Excellent post Jer, it hit me as well as being profound. How often do we ignore those types of stops in our two-wheeled journeys because we are so consumed by our own lives goals. To contemplate other peoples' existence is a rare one unless we read a good book or watch a movie that captures a life well or perhaps having the experience of losing a grandparent or someone else dear to us.

My thought regarding grave markers and the like are that they are not for the dead but for the living to remember past lives and legacies.

I think a great question to reflect on is to ask what type of legacy am I leaving? And perhaps another question to add is - how do we pass on that legacy?

Jeremy said...

Angelo, I think it's good that you've already been thinking about this stuff. I guess you've been here a little longer than I have, but I've really just been pondering it now.

My mom said the same thing as you did -- for years she just assumed that she'd eventually be buried back in MB. Now she's not so sure. It's started an interesting conversation about roots, and some of the grimmer issues of mortality. And what about cremation?

Yes, I think my folks planted a flag out here (I like how you put that...it's got a "small step for man"-lunar-exploration vibe), and I've followed that flag. Now that my kids are growing up in the Okanagan, they won't really know any other "roots" other than Tan's family in MB...but surely we can get them out here at some point.
: )

It's like my parents were the pioneers, the ones willing to tear out the old roots and plant them (however tenuously) in this new place, and then my generation is transitional -- loving this place, connecting to the landscape and the people, but wondering about connections to past roots -- but the next generation (our kids) will be rooted here by default, probably without question.

Discussing this with my mom on the weekend, we both recognized that we love that Ivy and Ella (and #3) will be rooted here, despite our personal costs in feeling somewhat dislocated in terms of our extended families and ancestors.

Jeremy said...

Good questions, Garth. I guess I was feeling a bit like gravestones aren't that great of a legacy, both in symbolic value and actual lasting power. So if not that, then what?

Connections themselves are a form of legacy. I think of how most Mennonites make great sport out of fitting you into their massive family trees. Community cemeteries keep some of those extended connections "alive" by physically placing the bodies, names and dates in proximity.

I don't know how well that same phenomenon applies here -- although I felt like an outsider in that Summerland cemetery, perhaps there are very few people who live here who feel connected to the lives of those buried there. This was frontier country a few generations ago...and many have moved on.