Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Shades of Taphophilia
Only recently did I know that there is a name for people like me. We are called taphophiles because we are drawn to, find respite in and are claimed by an abiding affection for cemeteries. I don’t remember when this passion of mine took hold exactly. It built slowly over the years probably by way of a life-long love of listening to my grandmother tell stories about our ancestors while I helped her in the kitchen or garden. At the end of every anecdote I always asked, “And when did they die, grandma?” That question was followed inevitably by, “And where are they buried?” Decades later, as a graduate student at the University of Oregon I was in Knight Library trying to wrap my brain around the writings of Focault or some other equally painful French thinker. I looked up from my book and out the large window that faced south and looked directly into a pioneer cemetery. So many early Lane County settlers buried there more than a century and a half ago. What would these forgotten people do if they were told, when they walked the earth like you and I, that after their bodies returned back to dust, a large university would grow up around them? Minds would expand and take on life-changing knowledge. Thousands of young people and scholarly laborers would pass by on foot and bicycle as seasons passed. How would they react to such information? And who were these people who, literally, became the roots of this institution? Do they know their contribution now, somehow? After that, whenever I went to the library to study I inevitably could not open my texts to prep for class and instead sat staring out at this cemetery and imagining the people buried there, who they were in word and deed, who and what they loved and lost when they walked among the living. (No, at the time I never thought of moving somewhere else within the library, perhaps deep among the stacks where there were no windows. Taphophiles and philosophers don’t think of such remedies until it is too late.)
I explore cemeteries because I feel I must. They fascinate me because when I enter into one I simultaneously feel inspiration and a sense of the sublime. I know that I am in a place that defies language, nonetheless, I must try to find the words. The times that I have resurrected someone buried deep in the ground for a hundred years through research instills in me a peculiar feeling of accomplishment. I bring them back to life just by remembering and by speaking their names. Through all this some questions persist: Why do some of us feel so impelled to explore the burial places of those who have gone before us? What does it signify? What does it mean under the penumbric question of what it means to be human?
I’ve had people say to me that cemeteries are repellent to them, but what I think they are actually repelled by is the self-knowledge that they are drawn to these places. It makes them uncomfortable. Each cemetery I explore holds the power of the sacred and the power of mystery, a chiaroscuro of sorts. On the surface, the light shines on the headstones, sculptures and the trees standing guard. These remind us of our common fate as human beings. Beneath the surface, though, is a dark hand with its index finger quietly and gracefully beckoning us to come and be brave enough to at least approach questions to which we may never know the answers.