Today my brother would have been 49

Rhoads_Allen_3853The wind ruffles the leaves, making a gentle rustle that seems to echo my breath. It’s a sound so gentle it is no sound, or else it’s the sound of the sea, of the blood, of life in its inexhaustible rush from birth to grave. Ashes to ashes, leaf to earth to soil to feed the roots to swell the buds to form leaves again to capture the sun. Everything is a cycle, endlessly spinning: the earth in its orbit, the sun whirling through the galaxy, one continuous dance flowing farther and farther out from its heart and never ever finding rest.

My brother is buried here. The wind whispers through the variegated grass that has grown high in front of the stone, obscuring words I no longer need to see to feel them stabbing into my heart, a long thin prick like a knitting needle, jabbing again and again so deep that I don’t feel the path of the pain, only its terminus, the point from which it radiates out into my limbs like a heart attack, like a stoppage of breath when you choke on something that cannot be swallowed and cannot be coughed out, which much lodge inside until you die of it.

I do not want him to be dead. My daughter tells me, in a sweet plantive voice, that she wishes she knew him. She wishes he had not chosen to drink himself to death before she was implored from the oblivion that exists before birth to come and help me heal the pain in my heart.

I wish she had known him, too.

She sometimes refuses to come to this graveyard with me any more. Once she came here and gaily chased rabbits, streaks of silence through the dancing grass. Now she knows it makes me sad like nowhere else in the world. Here lies my brother, my grandmother, the only grandfather I ever knew, and the grandmother who helped raise me, alongside her husband, who was dead before my parents conceived me. And a cousin, killed in a car accident before her first birthday, though not before mine.

Many hopes lie buried here.

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Take Your Children to the Cemetery

Rhoads_RockCreek_3119I’ve been blogging every month at Scoutie Girl magazine online, taking an unsurprisingly morbid spin on traveling with kids and aging parents. My travel essays have ranged from visiting the Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans to sleeping with the stingrays at the Academy of Sciences to exploring the sites of St. Joan’s martyrdom to eating in an entirely dark restaurant for the experience of being blind.

This month’s Scoutie Girl column is more directly related to the subject of this blog.  I encourage people to visit cemeteries, whether local or on vacation — and to take their kids along.

You can check the column out here: http://www.scoutiegirl.com/take-your-children-to-the-graveyard.

My question to you is this:  when you explore cemeteries, do you prefer to go alone?  Who do you — or who would you — like to take along as company?

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How to be Safe in the Cemetery

Loren Rhoads:

Believe it or not, I’m still fiddling with my speech for the Death Salon. I’ve got way too much information to fit into my allotted time. While I stress over that, here is one of my favorite cemetery essays from 2011.

Originally posted on Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World:

California rattlesnake warning

Earlier this month I explored the historic cemeteries of Pescadero. The grass was ankle-high on the Protestant side, but over my knees on the Catholic side. Holes the size of juice glasses riddled the ground, but I never saw a mouse or gopher poke his head out.

Where there is prey, however, there will be predators. I kept an eye open for snakes. When I could, I walked on the graves’ curbs and watched my feet in the grass.

I’d nearly finished my exploration and was headed cross-country down the grassy slope when something caught my eye. In the grass lay the longest snakeskin I’ve ever seen shed in the wild. I should have thrown my notebook down for scale when I took the photo. Trust me, this skin was as long as my leg.

It's hard to see, but there's a snakeskin in there. It's the thing that looks like a stick, diagonal across the photo.

Which got me thinking: I’ve explored American graveyards from inner-city Detroit to ghost…

View original 809 more words

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Death Salon is coming to San Francisco

The Jewish cemeteries in  what is now Dolores Park, San Francisco

The Jewish cemeteries in what is now Dolores Park, San Francisco

I’m going to miss another Cemetery of the Week tonight because I’ve been working on my speech for next weekend’s Death Salon here in my hometown.  Want to come and hear it in person?  There are still some tickets left.  Here’s the link.

The line up of speakers varies from my historical view of cemeteries in San Francisco to Jill Tracy talking about writing music in the Mutter Museum after hours to Caitlin Doughty (Ask a Mortician) talking about her new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.  There will be talks about working as a death doula, postmortem facial reconstruction, Santa Muerte, and funeral food traditions — and much, much more.

I missed the Death Salon in London earlier this year, but I was lucky enough to attend the initial Death Salon in Los Angeles last October.  I blogged about it for days on Morbid Is as Morbid Does.  Check it out here, if you’re interested.

In the meantime, the thought of the day as I researched my lecture:  the first “official” city graveyard in San Francisco was really small.  Bounded by what we now call Filbert and Greenwich Streets and bisected by what is now Powell Street, the graveyard had as many as 900 people buried in it between 1846 and 1850.  They must have been packed in pretty tight.

Shop window above the old graveyard

Shop window above the old graveyard

To call the space a cemetery is to be generous.  It had no fence. Sheep grazed on the property.  Without laws regarding the depths of graves, many were shallow and, unsurprisingly, the smell was bad. In 1850, the Daily Alta California reported, “A visit to this place of sepulture is sufficient to shock the sensibilities of men inured even to the battlefield rude burial of the dead.”

After the Gold Rush began in earnest in 1849, the graveyard’s land was suddenly more valuable.  Its owner stepped forward and demanded the bodies be cleared away so that he could develop his property.  It has been commercial ever since.

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The Grove: AIDS and the Politics of Remembrance

Grove DVD001Film is the perfect medium to capture the beauty and peace of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This documentary, in particular, captures the memorial across the seasons, such as they are in San Francisco:  spring, summer, rain, swirling fog. There’s a real sense that this is a living, breathing, growing landscape.

For all that, the AIDS Grove is an artificial landscape, carved out of sand and neglect in the midst of an extremely busy park. The people who do the work of gardening, maintenance, and building the memorial features came to be at odds (fortuitously for the filmmaker) over just what this landscape remembers.

Originally the Grove was envisioned as a peaceful place where people who felt ostracized from traditional holy ground could hold memorial gatherings and grieve without stigma for the tens of thousands who’ve died of AIDS and have no other monument. As the worst of the epidemic seems to be over and AIDS directly impacts fewer lives each year, the Grove’s board of directors wonders, “Is this memorial for people who suffered the losses firsthand or for future generations?”

A false comparison is made to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, visited by two million people each year. For one thing (which the film neglects to note), that Memorial stands between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not like people go out of their way to see the Vietnam Memorial. For another, fewer than 50,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War, while 636,000-and-counting have died of AIDS in the US. The Vietnam War ended; AIDS continues to ravage the world. Apples and oranges.

The documentary records the impassioned debate between the factions who see the Grove as a healing space and those (mostly not directly affected by the plague) who feel the Grove isn’t shocking enough to force untouched visitors to feel how devastating the plague was.  The schism appears generational.

Without comment, the movie captures the contest to design a new memorial element as a way to confront people and cause controversy. Tellingly, while emphasis was placed on finding a memorial design that would shock the future, the winning design had its own obsolescence planned in. If built, the stark charred-wood “Living Memorial” would have had seeds planted inside its planks so that, in time, nature would have reclaimed and obscured it. No one in the film notes the irony that, $6 million and a decade later, the Grove would return to being a garden once more.

The film spends too much time interviewing tourists who have gotten lost in Golden Gate Park seeking the Japanese Tea Garden. If the point is that the Grove is not well known, I suspect the solution is better advertising. It seems to me that the Grove faces the same problem that more traditional cemeteries face: how do you draw people who are not connected to the dead through your gates?

Finally, at the end, the film shows a volunteer sobbing because his team found a marble urn in the Grove when they were weeding. A man is shown scattering ashes. Memorial services are held. I’m not sure if this is meant as counterpoint to the aborted design contest, but it demonstrates that the National AIDS Memorial Grove does serve a real and necessary purpose. Perhaps it’s more personal in scope than “national” implies — and some on the board of directors are comfortable with, but until the plague has ended, there continues to be a need for a place to remember and grieve.

The film has shown several times on PBS. It’s worth seeking out. It will give you much food for thought.

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