By Dave Hood
It’s a cool, cloudy day in October. I’m driving through rural Ontario, doing some sightseeing of the autumn leaves. Driving down a long stretch of road, I accidentally discover something fascinating–an old cemetery, located in the middle of nowhere. There are no small towns nearby, just endless fields, the odd flock of trees, then more fields. A rusty barbed wire fence protects the cemetery from intruders. I think it must have been constructed over a century ago.
I park my black Chevy Cruse in front of the cemetery, turn off the ignition, hop out. In the distance, I hear a dump truck rambling along on the road. I think there must be construction of new houses somewhere nearby. Overhead, I see a gaggle of geese flying south. There’s a cool breeze, causing me shiver and button up my overcoat.
I lift the rusty latch, push open the gate, and enter the cemetery. The grass is quilted with fallen golden maples and crumpled yellow birch. They rest and decay like the dead. To the right, there’s an decrepit white building, shaped like a church. The paint is peeling, and most of the windows are broken. At the front, there are wooden steps to a door, which is locked. I think this is where the funerals must have been held for the deceased. To the left, the cemetery, where the dead are buried. From a distance, I can see that there must be 30 or more gravestones. I respectfully walk toward these headstones. I don’t feel the presence of any spirits of the dead.
Walking toward the graveyard, I recall the last time I was standing a cemetery, more than three years ago. It was in the dead of winter for an elderly woman, 89 years old, who was the mother of a friend. She had died in her sleep. After attending her funeral, I traveled by car to her place of burial in one of the oldest cemetery’s in Toronto, much like this one. In the snow and frigid air, I stood shivering next to a deep hole that had been dug where the casket would lowered. While waiting for the pallbearers to deliver the body, I thought of afterlife: What has become of this woman? My meditation was interrupted by the arrival of the black hearse. I watched pallbearers carry the casket from the hearse to the burial site, where the body of the old woman would rest. The minister then reads from the bible, said a prayer and gave some final words, while friends and family with grieving faces wept.
Arriving in the graveyard, I notice that most of the headstones are damaged and faded with the passage of time. I can tell that the graveyard is more than a 150 years old by some of the legible inscriptions. There’s an inscription of a man who died in 1861. I think he lived in an era where there was no telephone, no Internet, no automobiles, no television, no radio, no refrigerator—necessities of life we take for granted in 2013. Instead he read by candle light, heated his log cabin with a wooden stove, communicated by writing letters, travelled by horse and buggy. Several headstones have toppled over. Another rests against the old maple tree. Another is cracked, rotting like a fallen tree trunk. The leaves of autumn lie among gravestones. Most of the inscriptions are unreadable, like Braille. The wind, rain, sunshine, snow, ice have erased the names, dates, kind words of remembrance.
Standing next to another fallen gravestone near the barbed wire fence, where there is a bird house, I begin to ponder the afterlife: Where are the souls of these dead in this cemetery? Christianity promises eternal life for those who believe. I wonder if the souls in this cemetery live eternally. I think of the secular who worship their careers and material comforts, who don’t give death and dying much thought. Where the people buried in this cemetery without faith in an afterlife? I think of Buddhism promising rebirth. I wonder if the dead in this cemetery have been reborn in some other body. I think of the existentialists who believe in non-existence after death. There is birth, life, death, and then nothing. I wonder if the dead in this cemetery are just non-existent. I don’t feel any presence of a spirit or soul or energy.
Leaving the cemetery, I am enlightened by the sad reality of all of humanity: a century from now, you and I, and everyone else on earth will be dead and buried, or cremated, perhaps resting under a gravestone in some cemetery. Nearby, construction workers might be building high rises or highways or houses for the living. We will be forgotten, just like the dead who rest beneath these decaying headstone in this bedraggled cemetery.