Usually, I walk around the cemetery. Today, I turned off my music and walked through. I’m not sure why. Maybe I wanted to learn something. I’ve long wondered if death is some kind of Big Reveal. At the time of death, I fancy all riddles are un-riddled, and we are granted the God’s-eye view of everything. If so, there in the cemetery are rows and rows of the same well-kept secret: What in Sam Hill are we doing here, and does any of it matter?
Impermanence. Can we talk about this?
I think that there is likely only one cycle, and it repeats itself ad infinitum—inside individual living beings, inside masses of living beings, and inside the spaces between living beings—all at different scales. Many years ago, I wanted to become an expert on trees. I thought if I could thoroughly understand the intricacies of a tree’s cycle, then I would understand everything there was to understand about anything at all.
I didn’t make it very far in my research. I prefer to have ideas and then not do anything about them. It’s my jam, as the young and hip say.
Anyway… impermanence. I’ve been listening to a lot of Rob Bell podcasts lately. One thing he’s brought up in multiple episodes is the idea of how resistant to natural cycles we’ve become in contemporary western culture, and how that might be messing with our ability to handle the ebb and flow of existence.
I don't know about you, but I would desperately like to become better at navigating the ebb and flow. I want to worry less. I want to say goodbye more easily. I want to loosen my grip on everything I love. And I want to feel okay when the good stuff ends, because it inevitably does.
As Bell suggests, the more connected we are with the earth, the better we're able to handle its changes. There was a time we ate only what was in season, so our diets moved with the seasons' cycles. We woke and slept as the sun and the moon dictated. And birth and death were up close and personal. Babies were born in the living room, the same place where bodies were laid out for mourning and preparation.
Walking through the cemetery this morning—so lovely, so peaceful—I thought, “When I’m dead, will I care about my headstone?”
My mom and I had a conversation a long time ago about cremation. I’d decided and made it known that when I drop dead, I just want them to burn me up and then do whatever they want with the ashes. Toss them in a lake. Bury them under a tree. Carry them around in your pocket. Whatever. I just didn’t want the embalming and boxing and cemetery stuff. (I still don't.)
My mom did not care for this idea at all whatsoever and said, “Death and burying rituals are for the living, not the dead. If you die before I do, I don’t want to burn you up and toss you into a lake.” I’m paraphrasing, but she had a point. Fine, maybe all of the dearly departed in this cemetery don’t care about their headstones, but the people left grieving them do. And frankly, grieving is likely much tougher than being dead. I would assume, having not been dead yet, that I can recall.
But then, I thought, all the people who found so much meaning in the headstones of their loved ones? Well, they die, too. And then the ones after them. And after them. Then, 200 years later, amid the so carefully etched and placed headstones, emerges some sweaty, aging lady in spandex trying to jog off the pan of brownies she ate the night before.
[I’m kidding. I didn’t eat the entire pan.]
And then, what do we do when we don't have any burial space left, above or below ground? Do we start shooting bodies into space? (I think I read this once, but I don't remember and don't feel like looking it up.)
I don’t know. I’m just saying it piques my interest, and I don’t know what to do with any of it. So I kept walking.
Eventually, I noticed small stones sitting on top of the headstones. Some had just one or two. Others had piles. I liked it immediately. It felt good. Flowers wither and die. Stones last. This seems right. Then, I noticed the Hebrew. Does this cemetery have a Jewish section? Yes, apparently. I emerged beside the large sign indicating exactly this. It bore a quote that I don’t remember exactly, but something to the effect of “We are not divided.” … … … And I do not mean to be disrespectful, but I did wonder momentarily if anyone else found it a peculiar thing to engrave on a sign, the intended purpose of which it would seem, was to mark the division between the Protestant section of the cemetery and the Jewish section.
Aside from that, I really just wanted to know more about the stones.
So I came home and researched (googled).
I learned that leaving stones at grave sites is an ancient Jewish tradition, and has been interpreted many different ways. And this is where I want to tell you a story about an albino corn snake named Joko.
My sophomore year of college, I lived on the second floor of a small apartment building with two other women: E, a music major, had graduated from the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, ate no sugar, drank no alcohol, and meditated twice a day. The other, N, was an art student from L.A. with a gigantic, squishy heart for animals. She didn’t even kill bugs.
N decided to get a snake. She brought it home from the pet store with crickets and a glass tank. Then, over the course of two weeks, it refused to eat, starved, and died. N, with her big, squishy heart, was devastated and would eventually learn that the reason the snake did not eat was because it was cold and needed a heating lamp. She felt horrible.
We buried the snake next to the apartment building two stories below our bedroom window and lined the top of the grave with small stones. The next morning, I heard N and E having a dramatic conversation by the window. I joined them, peered down, and saw the snake lying ON TOP of the grave, in the middle of the circle of stones.
“Those assholes,” I huffed, as I marched downstairs, out the door, and reburied the snake. (I actually don’t remember if I reburied the snake or not but it seems like a nice ending to the moment and something I probably would have done.)
The “assholes” were, I instantly surmised, the jerks downstairs who played dumb music too loud and wore too much hair gel. The snake was two stories below our bedroom window, but right outside of theirs.
When I later returned to the apartment, N and E revealed that just before I joined them, they had been having a conversation about how the snake ended up above ground. N believed the snake either hadn’t really been dead and she’d accidentally buried it alive, or its spirit was angry that she had not provided proper care, and it had come back to haunt her. E believed it had levitated.
Enter P is for Practical and all of her Midwestern Church on Sunday sensibilities.
I tell you this story, because when I think about 5 different interpretations for the same thing, I think of 5 (or 3) roommates standing around a window trying to figure out how a buried snake got unburied.
Others believe the stones keep the soul where it belongs (in the grave) rather than roaming around shaking pots and pans in the middle of the night.
Some suggest that the stones represent the permanence of memory rather than the fleeting impermanence of life (as flowers do). So stones become a more lasting marker for memory and an eternal bond.
But my favorite is the connection to a story of shepherds counting their flock.
Moons ago, shepherds sometimes went out with 10 sheep, sometimes with 20. In order to remember how many were in their charge, they placed a pebble in a bag for each head in their flock. In this spirit, some offer stones as a prayer to God: Please keep this sheep under your watch.