Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones

 

I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my own head for the time being, I found myself back in Oakwood Cemetery, on the steps of a mausoleum, with a tattered American flag in my hands. It wasn’t often I strayed off the path during my runs – my feet followed a 5k race route whose markers faded long ago – but since I found myself in a wandering mood, I decided to do some exploring.

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Founded in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery lies about a block away from Syracuse University in what used to be the outskirts of town. The graveyard is sprawling; at 160 acres, Oakwood plays host to over 60,000 individuals and counting. Between the oaks, monuments, and mausoleums plotted along the rolling hills wind approximately 10 kilometers worth of trails (some paved, others dirt) shared by visitors and mourners alike. It is very easy to get lost among the stones, as I soon found out.

You never really understand just how odd a graveyard is until you try to walk among its stones. The place is full of conflicting messages. The architectural features of so many grave markers beckon visitors closer, whether than be because of interesting architectural features, places to sit, or just tiny print. Or all three, in the case of this massive monument:

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This makes sense, of course – graveyards, like funerals, are for the living. We are encouraged to visit the resting places of our loved ones to mourn or to give gifts or simply to talk. In Western culture, at least, these acts help to create an aura of reverence around those who have passed on, sanctifying the ground under which their remains are buried. Much like the concept of nationhood, this layers a virtual space upon material reality, giving what were stones and dust the weight of the secret and the sacred.

This makes things incredibly hard to navigate when you have something like this blocking your path:

 

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For the superstitious or the particularly pious, a graveyard is a nightmare to navigate. Perhaps the dead do not mind people stomping all over their resting places. There is, after all, six feet of earth and a coffin to insulate them from the tremors of the world above. But once I knew there was someone beloved under there, I created a virtual barrier of reverence in my mind. Such a thing is hard to unsee.

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Another odd thing about graveyards is their aesthetic of incompleteness. All around Oakwood were stairs that led to nowhere, pillars holding nothing up, archways huddled over aborted paths, locked iron doors without working handles, and yards and yards of unused space. Even some of the gravestones themselves like stray slabs from unfinished foundations, especially those that have been overgrown or worn down with age. All of this lends cemeteries the same uncanny air a ruin might have, hinting at some former glory that now goes unremembered.

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Oakwood in particular also has more mausoleums than I’ve ever seen in a graveyard, and these fascinate me most. They sit in the muddled middle between monument and place, having all the fixings of shelter but (for the most part) being eternally locked to anyone who would want to enter. Whereas headstones seem to jut into the physical space of the living, the barred doors of these larger structures create a clear barrier between the living and the dead. Gravestones can be touched, stroked, grasped as if they were virtual stand-ins for the one interred; the remains within mausoleums, it seems, can only be peered at through barred or broken windows.

How does one mourn at a mausoleum? Must it be opened to bridge the void between the living and deceased, or does the distance not matter? And what does it mean to sit on the steps while pondering these questions only to find you are standing on an actual welcome mat?

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(Seriously, why is there a welcome mat?)

Graveyards are odd places, to be sure, but they are also very human (perhaps I repeat myself). The burial of the dead is one of those cultural touchstones that seem as ancient as they are ubiquitous, and are perhaps the oldest constructed spaces known to humankind. As easy as it is for some of us to put them out of mind in day-to-day life, it is important to remember that these “Cities of the Dead” (as one old flyer for Oakwood proclaims) are built for the living. This not only means that we are obliged to respect and protect them – burial grounds are frequently neglected, littered, or (all too frequently) bulldozed – but that we ought to find time to visit them in order to look into ourselves. We will all end up like those buried beneath, after all, and I find graveyards are one of the few urban places that are quiet and empty enough to allow for self-reflection.

So, what I’m saying is go visit a graveyard. Turn off your phone and take an hour to meander the grounds, read the epitaphs, pick up any litter that’s blown in. Take a look at what there is to see before it gets too cold. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there is life among the stones.

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John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

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