Conversation With a Cemeterian

Todd Van Beck's picture

I have always liked cemeteries.  I like the history, the architecture, the stories, the mysteries, the ambience, the beauty. Well, just the entire idea of the “resting place,” what the first Americans called “wyuca” meaning a “place of rest.” It is all the same idea across the globe, resting places for the dead, the necropolis.

Cemeteries are silent records.  The record is written in stone.  This is powerful life stuff—and we need to protect it, take care of it, watch over it, and be very understanding of this basic human instinct to do this.  Cemeteries are everywhere, and for a very good reason—cemeteries, among scant few other things, are places which clearly attest to everybody the fact of our mortality.  In fact, I would suggest that in America only two places are left that clearly attest to this unarguable, undeniable truth concerning the 100% death rate: the cemetery and the funeral home, or is it today politically correct to say funeral home first and cemetery second, or is it the other way around?  I know there are people out there who are sensitive about who gets first billing, so I don’t want to offend—just take your pick.

A couple of weekends ago I participated in the dedication at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio, of their new Lookout Columbarium.  My longtime friend David FitzSimmons was the chief inspiration, planner and visionary of this project and, as usual, his plans were flawlessly executed.  It was a good day, and made me think about my conversation with a particular cemeterian who is a good friend of mine, but who during a phone conversation was mighty upset a couple of months ago.

The conversation we had revolved around his aggravation with families in “his” cemetery wanting, of all insults, to place votive lights on their loved one’s grave.  He called me for a listening ear, and most everybody knows I have huge ears and can accommodate a lot of information when others are talking, and my buddy wanted to talk.

In a nutshell this issue of votive lights had provoked him in a big way.  His complaints were both situational and practical, but also political and theological.  He was upset and he seemed to think he was running into a brick wall—the decedent’s family liked votive lights and they wanted to put them on their loved one’s grave, and that was precisely what they were doing.  According to my buddy, votive lights were placed everywhere throughout the cemetery, literally hundreds of them, however as the conversation progressed this number inflated to thousands of votive lights – all over the place, lights shining throughout the night, people praying all the time, walking around the cemetery, staying way too long, and not reading the great big sign at the front entrance which explicitly forbade the use of votive lights and many other things to boot.  The family was just driving him nuts, and while he tried to pass edict after cemetery edict, the family was just were not listening to him. They ignored him, he felt powerless, and he was mad as the devil.

Our conversation did nothing to stem the tide of his annoyance with votive lights—nothing.  We solved nothing in our conversation.  The family kept on brining votive candles, they kept on showing up to visit graves, and basically they were causing the management and maintenance staff one headache after another, day after day.

I felt for my buddy. I truly did.  People were an irritant to him and they were all over the place and he had to deal with them hourly.  It was truly a predicament.

After this phone call, which I did really nothing to help, I started to remember of all things my last trip to England—it was my honeymoon—just a year ago in June.  What always impressed me about my trips to Europe was my consistent observation of the location of the centrality of the church building in almost every community. The church was always in the center of town, in the center of life’s activities.

I like visiting old churches as much as I like visiting cemeteries.  In fact, I get the same feeling with both.

Every church I visited in England on my honeymoon, every one of them had votive candles prominently displayed, which one may light, and pray.  In fact I have been struck how candles and prayers seem to always go hand in hand.

I have concluded that just the small, little, tiny example of votive lights in a cemetery or in a church is a good thing and we ought to be patient and understanding of this one tiny example of mourning, religiosity and the attempts of human beings to connect with something that is beyond mere biology concerning the whys and wherefores of life.

I think after reflecting on the England experience that the people in my buddy’s cemetery are lighting votive lights because it makes them feel better, and in the end can we argue with this?  Yes we can, because my buddy argued with the family’s instinct to memorialize, ritualize, and express emotion for a couple of hours on the phone and as much as I like him, he is truly losing the battle.

Some will, of course, scoff at my very simple idea of how important little votive lights are really a terrible minor example, but I would like to suggest that, just as with Samson’s locks, sources of great strength in life often come to us from unexpected places. 

Votive lights might be a good example of strength coming from an unexpected source, which goes way beyond grass mowing, schedules, rules, regulations and the like—as important as those concerns are.   I am not unmindful that we need management to maintain a level of order, but I want to suggest that in the world of the dead there is truly more going on here than day to day management concerns.

Votive lights I believe are one living example of how people use the deeper meaning of the cemetery to connect with something larger than us.  Certainly there are many other larger more impressive examples, but votive lights will suffice for this purpose.

Since most religions light candles on the altars, it is clear that they do not consider doing it a superstitious act.  Votive candles express people’s faith and teach us about things that we cannot see or comprehend easily, and I know of few if any life challenges where faith and teaching are more important than when someone we love dies.  People kneel in cemeteries, pray in cemeteries, light candles in cemeteries, and they have been doing so for over 60,000 years. Why?  Because it works!  It helps people embrace the larger than life issues that they have to confront.  It goes beyond mere words and language, for always when words fail people turn to ritual, and lighting candles in a cemetery is truly a ritual in its very essence.

Lighting one simple votive candle at a grave is fraught with meaning and I have always found it a growth incentive to explore the meaning of activities, particularly activities that annoy me similar to my buddy who had gotten mighty provoked with people using these little candles.

Votive candles symbolize light and throughout religious thinking “light” is associated with growth, guidance, healing and finding new life.  How many times have we heard these phrases in times of crisis “Follow the light,” or “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.” 

The votive candle eventually burns down then burns out, and this is a symbol of how we use our time, metaphorically in time our life candle burns down and then burns out. 

As the votive candle burns it is a symbol that life goes on, and that when we leave the cemetery the candle is still burning, we know it, possibly we are the only person who knows this, but regardless we have to face life outside the gates of the cemetery.

Of course I probably am wrong about the connection between people and the issue of death and the meaning which is symbolized by the cemetery and funeral home.  I am so often times wrong.  Some people, as my buddy did on the phone, will argue with great vigor that such “nonsense” activities are in reality pagan, immature, and unsophisticated and should be eliminated or really tightly controlled.   No doubt he has a point.

However, during my conversation with him my mind wandered and I remembered, of all people, Oliver Cromwell who when he took power literally declared war on color, beauty, statues, candles and other such “nonsense” items in England . Oliver did not want people to express emotions, except maybe fear, but that was about it.  My buddy is certainly not alone in his frustration with people. They can be a bloody nuisance at times, and add votive candles to the mix and watch out.

When I spoke at the Woodland Columbarium dedication I saw many little small tiny examples of people trying in Dayton, Ohio, to connect with, for lack of a better phrase, “the other world.”  Everywhere were little items of memorialization scattered throughout the cemetery.  Little scripts of paper, ribbons tied in various fashions, toys, dolls, flags prominently displayed on many graves, and I believe an even saw a votive candle.  It appeared that creative memorialization was alive and thriving on the grounds of this really old and historic cemetery.

What I have tried to share is probably a terribly minor observation; just a small recommendation.  I mean in this one writing I have traveled to England, and back to Dayton, Ohio, to every cemetery I have ever visited and I have even resurrected old dusty Oliver Cromwell.  I confess, and it is true my personal observations about people’s need to connect with death rank in the minor leagues and I apologize for my shortcomings.

However, to the defense of my position of the importance of votive lights (which really symbolize our built in need to memorialize), I would offer my conclusion that civilization itself is expressed and taught in little things like kneeling, lighting a candle or removing one’s hat, or caring for flowers in a garden, or little children saying grace.  It is the little things that express and teach the big things.  Votive lights teach big things.

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.