You can’t beat cemeteries for a sense of stillness. Understand, I’m not talking about quietness, I’m talking about stillness.
We can look at dates on the tombstones and know what convulsions the world was putting itself through during the lifetimes of the folks buried there, but we also know what was happening in their personal lives. Not the details, maybe, but we know it was a mixture of joy, drama, trauma, tragedy, happiness, frustration, silliness–both the good kind and the bad kind–and just plain busyness, because that’s what comprises our lives. No wonder we think of the dead as being “at rest” or “at peace.” They are no longer tossed about by Life’s constantly changing current. All types of people are there of course, from the person who worried about the next day’s stock market report to the person who worried about where his or her next meal was coming from. Now, of course, they worry about nothing. It’s not just their business that is concluded, but their busyness. They are still.
That is the greatest lesson that “those who have gone before” can teach us. Be still.
Be still while we are able to enjoy it, for the stillness of the cemetery does no good for either the stock broker or the pauper buried there.
Perhaps my favorite cemetery is Riverview in Strasburg, Virginia. It sits on a hill and looks out toward Signal Knob, which itself is majestic, yet still. Massanutten Mountain runs south into the distance, the same as it has for 10,000 years. (Or 100,000 years? Makes no difference in human terms.) Isn’t it ironic that we talk about mountains “running” when they are so still? We can’t slow down to match the mountain, so we anthropomorphize and describe its length as “running” off in a particular direction. You know: the way we do.
I can never go to Riverview or any other cemetery without thinking of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. In fact, I am amazed how often I return to it twenty-some years after first teaching it. The majority of the third and final act takes place in a cemetery and the dead speak to us about living.
This is your homework, class. Go read Our Town, the Pulitzer Prize winning play of 1938. Yes, plays were meant to be seen, but this is the most readable of plays. And if you read it in high school, go read it again because most great literature is wasted on the young. Busyness is natural to them, but far too often the productive busyness of youth becomes the habitual busyness of middle age, and we forget what it’s like to be young and we fear what it is like to be old and we never live in the now. That’s the wisdom that Thornton Wilder hoped to give us.
Here’s the pdf version of Our Town. I know some of you will be crying at the end. I know one or two of you who will be crying at the beginning. Just read it.
And be still.