Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Life among the Dead

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of a day to myself. Unlike most women, I did not choose to sleep late, spend it a spa, or go shopping. I spent a delightful day with my camera - in a cemetery. Now before you think I have lost my mind, or what little I have left of it, I'll confess I have always loved cemeteries, the old ones with monuments to the dead. In a way, they are gardens of art. And, they are so tranquil. If you are still shaking your head, humor me here.

In the South, in years past, there was much money spent on statues, markers, pillars, obelisks, mausoleums, and other impressive monuments to the dead. If someone just dropped in, from say Mars, they would think that the families of those in the past had to build these shrines to their God begging him to take their loved one soul. The larger and more impressive the shrine, the better the chance the soul would be saved. In truth, it was a way of keeping up with the Joneses. And it still would be the practice, except in today's south, such excess is seen as "tacky". No one from a "good family" would think of such. But they are awfully proud of the tributes to their ancestors that past family members erected.

This particular cemetery I visited yesterday was large, 128 acres with 35,000 graves of some of South Carolina's most famous citizens - 5 governors, 3 senators, 2 cabinet members, and other citizens, both famous and infamous, military elite, educators, mayors, engineers, writers, artists, crooks, murderers, madames, and various scoundrels, all with a story to tell. It was a former rice plantation very close to the city and designed to be a place for families to come and stroll among the grand oaks and resting souls - a park of sorts.

When I arrived early in the morning (for the best light), I drove through the gates and took one of the many named loops that meander beside the ponds, under the oaks, and around the thousands of grave sites. As I got out of the car, I knew I was in one the most beautiful places I had ever seen. (Now, I realize one has to over come any thoughts of morbidity, fear, or general sense of intrusion to share this feeling. So, if you can't, I understand, don't agree, but understand. - you're missing a lot.)

I won't bore you with the details (although I have included some picture to the right) but I found myself walking in and out of masterfully crafted ancient wrought gates. Low brick walls, covered with rich green moss, outlined family plots. The effects of wind, weather, and time had caused some tombstones to lean. The fine marble had also taken its toll from the elements. But unlike your pedestrian graveyard, here you saw mausoleums with Tiffany windows, pyramids, angels, crosses of all kinds, and some many different unique carvings I had to stop trying look at every one.

There are military graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers, the former still sporting small Confederate Battle flags (I'm sure placed there on Confederate Memorial day (See May 31, 2010)). Some southern soldiers killed at Gettysburg were later brought home and reinterred in this hallowed ground. The Unions soldiers used it as an encampment during the war and while there, burned the chapel and cut down many of the oaks trees (that were part of the original design) for fire wood.

I walked in silence, in awe, for two hours, reverently capturing images that I knew would fail to capture the beauty of the place. As the heat rose and the light became glary, I reluctantly decided it was time to go. But I knew I would be back. On my way home, I stopped at a Chic-fil-a for a cold drink. There was a delay (for some reason) and as I was waiting, the polite lady at the counter asked me what brought me to Charleston. "Photography" "Are you shooting a wedding?" That's a compliment I thought, I didn't have a camera with me. I must have sounded professional. "No, I was photographing a cemetery." "Oh, that's gruesome." "Not, really. I think of it as a garden of art. The the markers and monuments in the older ones are really beautiful." "Maybe. But, you still have all those dead people." I didn't know where to go from there, because that's just it, they are dead. Thankfully, by that time, my drink was ready.

So yes, on the day I had to myself, I spent it amongst the dead. But, it was a lovely place. It was quiet. There were no arguments, no disagreements. I was happy as a lark. Does this say something about me or my life? To find peace and contentment, I must stroll amongst the deceased. If so, I have found my spot.

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