Monday, September 6, 2010

Cemeteries and memory

I visited a few cemeteries this Labor Day weekend - three, in fact. I love old cemeteries because they are a tactile reminder of the richness of humanity and history. They remind me how many lives have been lived all over our world, some short, some long. Each of those lives memorialized holds a story, even if it's an ordinary one. I suspect, though, that each name carved into a headstone had a secret or a powerful moment, and I love imagining them. Even the infants' and the children's graves tell a story, one of their parents' mourning and of the difficult times they were born into. I read this morning in Scientific American that as recently as 100 years ago, a quarter of children died of infection before their fifth birthdays. The cemeteries we saw over the weekend bore this out, with family plots sometimes half-filled with tiny tombstones memorializing young children.

For a storyteller, cemeteries are both symbolic and a source of inspiration. How do we remember the stories our lives told? Who were these people? What does death mean for us? I have a book of Parisian cemeteries, with entries on the lives of the noteworthy, famous, and talented buried there. I love flipping through it and reading the entries; it's like an abbreviated social history. And each glimpse of a life makes me want to learn more.

This morning, I learned of a newish development in "death care" and tombstones (hat tip - Husband). One can now insert a barcode onto the headstone, and when a smartphone or other scanning device reads the barcode, they will be directed to a website with stories and photos. That's certainly more effective as a memorial function (at least for the short term, as long as society has the technology to read those barcodes and the websites to display the information). From a storyteller's or a romantic dreamer's perspective, such a function is much less provocative. And it is hard for me to avoid the sense that putting a barcode on someone's headstone commercializes them, makes their life into a commodity, even though that's just by association.

If that takes off, or if we develop other ways of memorializing ourselves, with videos embedded in mausoleums or 3-D holograms leaping from grave sites, I wonder what cemetery-wandering in the future will be like. Will it be harder to stretch our imaginations? And does it matter?

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Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma