My youngest son was eager to visit a cemetery, and so we spent Sunday reading tombstones. This is usually a relaxing experience for me. Cemeteries are quiet places to begin with, and the dead provide no stories to clutter my brain. I don’t go to a cemetery to imagine strangers’ deaths, after all, but to remember the serenity of life. The story of memory is for friends and family only; for the rest of us, the dry facts are gratefully neutral. There are no politics recorded on the tombstone, no grievances – all I know is a name, some dates, and usually that the deceased was “beloved.” There were two exceptions, however. I came upon several family tombstones. Here were listed one generation, and then the next, and then, surprisingly, the living—in the form of a name, a birth date, and an ominous blank space. I was unfamiliar with this practice, and it seemed bizarre and just a little macabre. I would find it disconcerting to read my name on a tombstone. There are certain things you must never rush, and death is certainly one of them.
Finally a tombstone listing a father and his three young children, all of whom died on the same day, the anniversary of which was only a few days prior. Now I was compelled to imagine the accident that took these four people together. When life’s narrative is dominated by death in this way, it always leaves me a bit hollow. It’s like a story that the writer didn’t know how to end.
In fact, my wife and I had watched a movie the day before that we had both found completely unsatisfying. In it, no one changed and nothing much of value was learned. Writers will sometimes resist this dictum that their characters grow and change, sometimes for existential reasons, for aren’t we all just dust in the end?
No, we are not. Dust would not be drawn over and over to the beauty that art promises, what Robert Henri described as the “trace of a magnificent struggle.” The mind can easily be petrified by the immutable fact of death, but death is a red herring. Change and growth are not merely some by-product of life, they are the very engine of it. Death, even of a father and his three children, is just one more change, the results of which are beyond immediate knowing. No matter. That change was none of my business. My name is not yet chiseled on some tombstone, and I am changed even as I write this.