by Chris Raymond
“Ew, why would you go for a walk in a cemetery?” Ignorant Teen exclaimed.
“Cemeteries are peaceful, interesting places,” Patient Mom explained.
The year was 1980 and, unbeknownst to 14-year-old Ignorant Teen (a.k.a. me), Patient Mom had just transmitted the taphophilia pathogen without sneeze, cough, kiss, or touch after returning from her morning constitutional during a New England family vacation.
Lacking natural antibodies (and still unsure four decades later how this “cemetery-love bug” transmits itself), this initial seed festered in my system unseen, growing, waiting for the perfect time to strike.
“Why the f*** does she find a creepy cemetery interesting?” Ignorant Teen often pondered aloud afterward as this gravestone germ gestated, always when Patient Mom was out of earshot.
That autumn, a few months after initial infection, the family packed up our “refrigerator on wheels,” an old-school, white Volvo wagon, and headed several hours northeast to Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin, for our annual camping trip. (If you look at the palm of your right hand, fingers extended and held together, Wisconsin is your hand, Door County is your thumb, and the park sits on the left edge of your thumb’s topmost section.)
Now, when my family went “camping,” I mean we voluntarily forsook every modern freakin’ comfort for an entire week. A sooty campsite firepit served as hearth; a mildewed canvas Sears tent served as home. Backs turned on comfy mattresses and the cleanliness of modern plumbing, the Raymond clan instead sought the gentle nighttime embrace of every rock and tree root skulking beneath sleeping bags, the bracing fragrance of pit toilets, and the festival of communicable nastiness lurking on the floor of every public-shower.
These hardships aside, this particular camping trip still offered Ignorant Teen a new roughing-it luxury: escape, in the form of his father’s hand-me-down Schwinn 10-speed bike hauled atop the mobile-refrigerator’s roof rack. Despite its narrow, unpadded, colonoscopy-inspired seat, this aged metallic blue beauty nevertheless promised the freedom for Surly Teen (as I was also becoming) to wander off, to explore, to discover.
Thus, late one autumn afternoon in 1980 — probably after churlishly responding “I will!” over my shoulder to Patient Mom’s “Be back in time for dinner!” — I mounted my bike for a ride. Soon finding myself on Shore Road, which rings the exterior of Peninsula State Park and offers many scenic views of water and woods, I noticed a sign for Mengelberg Lane to my left.
Channeling my inner Jean Nicolet, the French explorer famed for “discovering” this area of Wisconsin centuries earlier, I turned and headed east along this pastoral but otherwise nondescript road, enjoying the zing of my narrow bike wheels on asphalt, the feel of wind in my hair at speed, glad to be alive.
After several hundred yards, I discovered Blossomberg Cemetery and, in that moment, the taphophilia pathogen manifested and I got it, finally and fully understanding what my mother meant.
Late-afternoon sunlight struggled to penetrate the stately maples, oaks, and pines guarding the perimeter. I noticed the stillness blanketing the cemetery like a shroud. High above, a few breeze-swayed tree branches moved soundlessly, like teardrops at a funeral, as if even these timeless leafy sentinels dared not disturb the solemnity within their everlasting embrace.
Dismounting my bike, I wandered slowly between silent stone rows. I explored areas of sunlight and shadow across the still, dappled landscape, careful to avoid stepping directly on a grave out of respect. The crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet sounded louder than a surreptitious candy wrapper in church.
Initially, the chiseled birth and death years of the residents drew my attention. The reality of “forever” at journey’s end nagged my adolescent consciousness.
The earliest Blossomberg Cemetery gravestone dates to 1881, which predated the sale of this once-private family cemetery by nine years, when the Andersons sold two acres of land for $100 to Wisconsin’s Gibraltar Township (located just south of the park). While I didn’t spot that particular marker, slightly younger stones caught my attention. “Wow, that tombstone was sitting here 60-70 years before I was even born,” I marveled. I continued exploring, seeking earlier dates.
Eventually, confronted by the vastness of time and the permanence of death writ in stone, the immutable physical evidence of granite gravestones, marble markers, and lives lost challenging the infallibility of Ignorant Teen’s perceptions after 14 whole years of experience, I started noticing the condition of the cemetery’s older monuments. Many inscriptions were illegible. Some tombstones had toppled. Saddened by apparent familial forgetfulness due to the passage of time, I nevertheless heard the silent message whispered by Blossomberg’s monuments — as well as those in every cemetery, everywhere — provided we’re willing to listen: I too was here on this planet, just as you are right now. This is your fate.
Continuing my exploration after this existential epiphany, I soon encountered a particularly captivating cemetery headstone that powerfully conveyed this newly learned life-lesson: a four-sided obelisk with two orphaned slabs resting against its base, the entire trio weathered and mildewed, forlorn and forgotten. Finding the visual contrast between nature and neglect, life and loss, irresistible, I ran back to my bike to retrieve my camera.
Photographed during the now-archaic film age, I waited impatiently several weeks after this camping trip for my lab-developed 35mm slides in their familiar Kodak-yellow box to arrive in my mailbox. Soon after, I again waited impatiently for a local photo lab to finish the enlargement I ordered.
Today, that print still hangs in my home, as it always has wherever I’ve lived since that profound, pristine autumn afternoon long ago. Frame dusty, image slightly faded and usually overlooked as I rush past — preoccupied and too often taking for granted life and loved ones — this photograph waits quietly and patiently, just like its original subject matter, until the next moment when I pause and again hear Blossomberg Cemetery’s whispered reminder.
“The Cemeteries of Peninsula State Park” by Lauren Bremer, September 1, 2013. Retrieved April 18, 2016. https://doorcountypulse.com/the-cemeteries-of-peninsula-state-park.
Chris Raymond has served as About.com’s expert on dying, funerals, and grief since 2012. Previously, he served as editor of The Director magazine for more than 12 years. The Director is the official monthly publication of the National Funeral Directors Association and the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors, embalmers, and other deathcare professionals. Chris has spoken on numerous death and dying topics to audiences of funeral service professionals and consumers alike,and his articles have appeared in leading funeral service publications worldwide. You can connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.