April 19—Editor’s Note: First of a two-part series.
ALBANY – We had passed it on Interstate 85 before I realized what I had just seen. It was perched on a hill in the middle of cloverleaf exit 35. Traffic was light on a Sunday afternoon, and for a moment I thought about turning around to explore it. Who, I wondered, had put it there and how the hell had an access ramp been designed to avoid it?
Then, as we were driving and my wife was working on her crossword, my mind really went to work. Why do we need cemeteries in the first place, and why do we go to such extraordinary lengths to preserve them?
When my wife’s father passed away last year, we buried him in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, next to Karen’s mother. Elmer chose the site because it overlooked the property where he grew up. He had played on the cemetery grounds as a child in the 1930s, and his father had even herded Liebert Brothers dairy cattle there before graves began to spread across the area of the property and a wall is erected.
Cave Hill Cemetery is a 300-acre National Cemetery and Arboretum dating back to before the Civil War. With its lush plantations, picturesque lakes and panoramic views, it looks more like a public park than a place where the likes of Colonel Sanders and Muhammed Ali are buried. A man named “Big Jim” Porter was buried there in April 1859. I identify with him by sharing more than a name. James D. Porter was also known as the Kentucky Giant. He was 7 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. I had to take a photo of his grave.
The word cemetery comes from the Greek word meaning “place where one sleeps”. It is a word that originally applied to places like the Roman catacombs and implies that the land is specifically designated as a burial place. The term “cemetery” is often used interchangeably with graveyard, but a graveyard primarily refers to a graveyard within a graveyard.
The modern cemetery probably originated about a thousand years ago in Europe, when burials were under church control and could only take place on consecrated church grounds. When cemeteries began to fill in the early 1800s, new locations were laid out outside the population center. These early cemeteries were professionally designed, elaborately laid out, and served as early recreational areas in an era before the use of public parks.
Modern cemeteries provide a space that comforts families as they grapple with their grief while remembering their loved ones. They provide a serene environment in which to lay flowers and remember the deceased.
My four grandparents are all in Memorial Park Cemetery on 49th Street in St. Petersburg, Florida. I could visit their graves at any time and pause in remembrance. I visit my granddaughter’s grave in Louisville every time I’m there. It is comforting to see his name carved in stone and to remember his laughter and his kindness.
My parents, on the other hand, chose to be cremated. My brothers and I spread their ashes — half outside their cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina and the other half on the St. Petersburg beach we frequented growing up. They don’t have headstones, monuments, or markers, but for me, sitting in the sand at Pass-A-Grill Beach and reliving my childhood memories is at least as heartwarming as standing in a cemetery. and watch a granite marker.
I’m not opposed to cemeteries, but I don’t plan on having a headstone in one. My wife and I talked about cremation rather than burial, but cremation seems like an unnecessary waste of fossil fuels. That’s why we are also looking at more environmentally friendly options.
We could donate our body to science, an option that could contribute to the advancement of science and medicine. I wonder what name those medical students would give to my long, skinny corpse. The name that comes to mind is the tall, cadaverous Addams Family butler “Lurch” – a nickname that stuck with me in high school.
We briefly considered something called alkaline hydrolysis – a water-based dissolution process that uses heat, pressure, and alkaline chemicals to gently break down a human body into chemical compounds. But as people who love nature and the outdoors, there are even more appealing ways to become one with the earth.
We could be buried in what is called a mushroom suit – a natural burial shroud made from fungi and biodegradable microorganisms. These organic materials help the body break down and neutralize toxins, releasing nutrients into the surrounding environment and promoting new growth. Or we could consider human composting, a process that uses “organic reduction” to convert a human body into soil.
It almost seems too simple. The body is covered with natural materials such as straw and wood shavings and left to rot. The resulting microbial activity breaks it down into clean, odorless soil free of pollutants and toxins. We have been composting organic materials for our garden for years. I kinda like the idea of someone carrying my spent carcass out to the garden and letting it turn back into soil for their garden.
The cemetery inside the I-85 cloverleaf at exit 35 is John Coggin Meadows Cemetery. Meadows apparently bought the land the graves sit on in 1838 for $500. The Coweta County property passed to the family and was eventually sold several times, but always with the exception of a small piece of land at one corner of the land – a section known as “Old Meadows Cemetery” .
When the Department of Transportation was planning the right-of-way for Interstate 85, surviving members of the Meadows family opposed moving the cemetery. The DOT has agreed to preserve it, and judging by the fresh flowers and new graves, it is still sacred ground for the family. But the garden atmosphere disappeared when the freeway came.
The season of Easter and the empty tomb seems an appropriate time to consider our own mortality. Honoring and remembering the deceased is an important part of our culture. But cemeteries take up space. And one day, when everyone who knows us is gone, what will be the purpose? I wonder about our tenacious insistence on having an “eternal” resting place, as if this ground were where we would reside for eternity.
In a hundred years, no one will be looking for my grave, anyway. The only problem might be that someone in Louisville – where I lived for a while – might visit Cave Hill Cemetery and mistake me for another James D. Porter. He died 90 years before I was born, and he was known as “The Kentucky Giant.” I’m a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than him, and after being teased a lifetime about my size, I don’t particularly want to spend eternity being known as a “giant.”