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"There are no cemeteries here," Mike said the other day, as if he wanted there to be lots of cemeteries everywhere, always. We were driving somewhere, and he thought, for a split second, that a grove of young trees wrapped in burlap were headstones. He seemed disheartened to realize that they were just saplings, not dead people.
Of course, there are cemeteries in Orange County. Plenty of them. With over 3 million residents smashed into 948 square miles, there is bound to be more than a few deaths each day. The fact that neither Mike nor myself could articulate where one cemetery is though, seemed odd. Our ability to tuck death away into inconsequential corners, or to just ignore it completely, is unparalleled. Culturally, we commodify dying, upselling grieving loved ones on caskets and headstones and flowers and hors d'ovoeurs.
It's easy to not think about death, even though we're around it always. The chicken meat I ate for dinner was once a living, breathing bird. Except, I don't have to think about that, because I bought the chicken in a grocery store where it sat on a chilled shelf wrapped in plastic. I cooked the chicken this evening, marinating it in butter and lemon juice and tossing it into salad greens that also came wrapped in plastic. My cat stared up at me as I ate, begging for a taste. Life goes by and some days, I look at my cat and really notice how white his ears have gotten, how age has slowly crept into his face. Some days, I look at myself, really look, and notice the same thing.
I grew up in a small town tucked away in the hillsides of Northwestern Wisconsin. I also grew up before cell phones and the internet wedged their teeth into everything we did. I'd sit on the hard, shiny brown seats of the school bus most mornings with headphones over my ears, a Walkman clutched in my fists. We listened to music one album at a time, then.
There was more than one cemetery near my town. One on the east end, near the fire station and across the main street from a nursing home and a funeral home. I wondered what it would feel like to live at that nursing home, only yards away from a graveyard where many of the residents would eventually rest. Sort of macabre, if you think about it.
There was a cemetery down the road from my parent's house, too. It was surrounded by giant, towering trees, moss creeping up the sides of some headstones, and a lonely, forlorn, almost spooky air about the place. I ran by that cemetery a million times and only ventured up the road and into it once. The reality of death was not nearly as scary as my own imagination was.
And finally, there was a cemetery in the yard of the church my family went to every Sunday. That was the only cemetery I cared about, because that's where my great-grandparents are buried. I know that they aren't there, really. But it is comforting that there is a place I can return to, if I want to say hello. The reality of death is that it's here, around us, always. Sometimes the only time we care to notice it is when the sting of loss is personal and painfully acute.
Growing up in a place like I did required an understanding of death. Animals passed away. Other animals were raised to be sold to be slaughtered. Each fall, men, women, and children alike take to the forests and swamps to hunt deer. For some, it's sport. For others, it's food. Regardless, more than a few have shot their first deer and felt a pang in their chest. As they should. That pang is human.
Growing up in a place like I did meant that the cycles of life were thrust upon everything, even if we never noticed. Seasons were harsh and quick. Lush, dense forests turned blazing red-yellow-orange before sinking into winter. The bottomless quiet of winter is still one of my favorite sounds; a sound I miss on winter nights here, when all I hear are cars passing by my windows, the thud of my neighbors footsteps upstairs, the hum of the dishwasher, my own fingers typing, typing, typing.
To live is to live with death, because, as Kafka said, "The meaning of life is that it stops."