by Joseph Scarpati
The cemetery was empty. Everyone had left hours ago, taking their tears with them. The freshly turned soil was the only indication that anyone living had been there. The sun was setting and the light began to splinter among the towering oaks. I marveled at the way the refracted light danced over the marble tombstones. The tombs stood stoically, wanting desperately to tell every passerby their stories. I would like to imagine that I would listen. I scanned the names of the spotlighted tombs and wondered who they were. I wondered what their happiest moments had been. Who they had loved and what they had loved. The tombs all looked about the same, but buried deep beneath them rested unique experiences and stories. The cemetery was peaceful. The autumn night air began to push past the warmth that the day’s sun had brought. It was a crisp, haunting breeze that ran against my neck.
I did not know the man who was buried today. From the number of people who attended his service I am guessing he lead a good life though. You see I have recently picked up a peculiar hobby of attending funeral services. Before you judge me, think of this, nothing makes you appreciate life more than watching the end of one. I try to be respectful. I observe from the back and try not to intrude on the grieving families. I try to piece together the deceased’s life and then imagine what the priest will say at my funeral. Although I am not positive, I believe that this hobby was inspired by a revelation I had a few months ago. As much as it pains me to say it, I am an extremely selfish individual. I have spent the last thirty-two years of my life caring only about myself, and although it has been wonderful and relatively easy, I feel as though it has left me empty. I fear that my capacity to feel for other living people is abnormally low. Maybe that is why I am drawn to these gatherings. The pain of others’ grieving does not burden me very much. People have told me that is a sad reality, but it is my reality and oddly enough I would not consider myself sad.
His name of the deceased buried today was Harold Walker, and the etching on his marble slab said he died at age seventy-eight. He was a dedicated husband, loving father, and a kind individual. Beyond all the usual platitudes at the graveside, there was something about his service that compelled me to stick around until it ended and then to linger. I have been sitting in this increasingly dark cemetery for the last hour and half by myself. My thoughts have been in a million different places at once, but they keep coming back to Harold. Maybe not Harold himself, but the idea of Harold. I think I am envious of him. I think the idea of Harold Walker living out his whole life and being able to successfully cross the finish line is why I am still here. I think I am scared. Maybe my own selfish fear of not being successful is what is keeping me from leaving. I started to drift.
The air has begun to bite at my neck, and I’ve buried myself deeper in my coat. It isn’t enough to get me to leave Harold’s side, but it is enough to snap me back into the here and now. The last rays of sun sparkled on the wet blades of grass. The grass was thick and alive. A grey squirrel perched on top of Harold’s tomb. He was fat from the autumn harvest and his coat was thick as he prepared for the harsh months ahead. He meticulously shredded an acorn, dropping the bits and pieces all over Harold’s resting place. The scraps would rot back into the earth, just like Harold. It was odd to see all the life that was happening in a place reserved for the dead.
“You did it, Harold,” I found myself whispering to my buried companion, “you lived your whole life out and still had people come to your funeral.” I thought to myself that I would be lucky to be buried at all by the time I die. I probably will piss so many people off they will just haul my body away with the trash. The idea made me laugh a little. I do not think that those around me dislike me, but I know that those around me do not love me. My mother always said in order to receive you must give. I never felt the need to give and in turn I never received. In all honesty I would have loved to receive, but nobody ever interested me enough to give. One person was the same as the next. This all changes though when you die. When you are alive you are forever incomplete. You are a story with no ending. When you die, regardless of the life you lived, you leave behind a compelling tale. I find myself fascinated with the completed life stories of the dead. Maybe that is also why I am here. Everything here is complete. There are no loose ends or unfinished stories. Everyone here did it. Whether they did it gracefully or they stumbled head first across the finish line I do not know, the fact is they did it.
I struggled with the concept of unfinished stories for a little while. I was not sure if it was fair to say there are no unfinished stories buried in this cemetery. I am sure that every soul laid to rest had something they left unfinished. Some dream they had yet to achieve, or of a person they had yet to meet. So maybe there were unfinished stories here, but then again those missed dreams were part of the story. The fact that the dream did not materialize is as much a part of the story as everything that did happen. I wondered what I would leave unfinished. I wondered what missed dreams would define my story. Probably having a family, or rather not having a family. I do not actually believe that I want a wife and kids, but I do like the idea of having a wife and kids. Harold had a wife and kids. I do not think I am cut out to be a husband or a father, but nevertheless there is something innate in us that drives us towards that. I think that might be something I will miss out on.
Harold was buried on a sloping hill. His particular spot was towards the bottom. I sat in front of him looking up the soft incline. At the top of the hill, maybe thirty yards away, was a little robust Japanese maple. Since it was elevated on the hill the tree was catching much more of the sun then Harold and I were. The red maple leaves, illuminated by the defiant red sun, seemed to pulse, giving the tree the appearance of a beating heart. The leaves moved up and down with the breeze, and as the autumn breeze became an autumn wind, the tree seemed to beat faster. I felt my own heart beat faster. I felt my mortality racing up into my throat. I thought I could taste the end. I quickly quelled whatever it was that was trying to choke me.
This overwhelming rush of emotions was just one more reason I envied Harold. His fear was buried long before they buried him. I was positive that you must lose your fear of death once you have succeeded in your life. I still have not succeeded. It is not as if I consider myself a scared or anxious person, but there are moments in my life when I contemplate the potential darkness of the afterlife and I am paralyzed. The one benefit of this paralysis is it reassures me that I am not suicidal. Although I envy the dead, I do not wish myself dead.
“Damn it Harold,” I muttered, “you have it all laid out.” I paused as if I were going to get a response. “I mean everything you did is out on the table, successes and failures are one and the same.” I knew it was crazy to keep up this running conversation with a dead man, and a dead man who I did not even know to top it off, but it was comforting. I could bounce my ideas off of the hard marble tombs and have them come back to me with a new depth. A six-foot depth.
Something from the service popped back into my head. It was something the priest had said. Harold was always there for a person in need. Family, strangers, and everyone in between. I wondered how many people Harold had helped in his life. I imagined all the times Harold sat across the table from a distressed friend and quietly reassured them that it would be all right.
I wondered how many people’s lives were better simply from knowing me. I consider myself to be funny, so I am sure a few people would say I have brightened their days, but is there anyone out there whose life is significantly better because of me? I cannot think of one. My mother would say her life was better, but I am pretty sure she would have been better off without me. She managed to raise my sister and me by herself, but I know for a fact that if she never had us she would have had a much easier life. My sister’s life is definitely not better because of me. I was barely around growing up, and when I was there I never gave her the time of day. From what I know about her, she turned out to be a great person. She has two beautiful little girls of her own now. It has been a full year, and I still have not met the younger one. I am sure Harold would have been there for his niece’s birth.
An owl called out in the distance. I noticed that the sun had completely abandoned me. It was not entirely dark yet though. There was an eerie white twilight that lit up the cemetery. I started to contemplate why I was still standing at Harold’s tomb. In the last eight months I had probably been to six funerals after which I hadn’t lingered, and I could not place exactly why Harold’s was unique. The first one I attended back in February was for the old State Governor. He was about Harold’s age, maybe a little older. Thousands of people showed up so I did not feel awkward shuffling my way into the back row. It was much more of a production than Harold’s was, of course. There were news trucks and reporters scattered all around trying to get a story. Despite the circus, it was actually a beautiful ceremony. That man led a life.
The last funeral I attended was the only one where I almost cried. It was only two weeks ago and about 200 yards away from where I am standing now. It was held for a local woman, only a few years older than myself, who had died of pancreatic cancer. She has been diagnosed in May and was gone by September. I know I talked about being envious of those who cross that finish line, but I am not envious of her. She did not cross the finish line as much as she was pulled from the race. I think dying suddenly scares me more than anything. Not having a chance to prepare for death must be terrifying. I started preparing for death when I was nine years old, and I still do not know if I will be ready to go in my dying days..
The question came back to me. Why am I standing at Harold’s tomb when at all the other services I would leave as soon as the priest said amen? No good answer came to mind. I may have just gone off the deep end, simple as that. I bet if a groundskeeper came out here and asked me how I knew Harold and I told him I had no idea who this man was, he would probably have me committed. That made me laugh again. I do not believe I am crazy. There are a lot of things that I am, but crazy is not one I would mark myself as.
“Why do you think I’m here, Harold?” I asked him while warming my hands with my breath. “And don’t say because I never knew my own father, because I thought of that an hour ago and it didn’t add up.” Although it would make the most sense, I really do not think I am mourning Harold as if he were my own father. My father passed away three years ago, but I did not attend the funeral. Not because I was angry, but because I had no desire or curiosity that would take me there. I mourned the loss of my father in my formative years, and I have been at peace with it since. He died an unhappy old man. The two families that he started had dissolved and neither cared much for him. I never met the man even though he lived only twenty-five minutes away from where we lived. While I was growing up, he was fathering his second attempt at a family in the next county. I recognized he did not want anything to do with me, so I never wanted anything to do with him–simple as that. So while the father transference theory makes sense on paper, I know in my mind it just does not fit.
I looked up and saw the sharply painted night sky. The stars were bright and clear. The deep purple vastness of the universe seemed to weigh on me a little, and I began to feel the discomfort in my ice cold feet. Maybe I was standing here to punish myself. Maybe standing at this tomb like it was a sacrificial altar was a way for me to atone for my sins. To be honest, though, I do not believe I have committed many sins in my life. I am a pretty straight-edged type of guy; I barely drink, I never smoke, and although I love gambling, I stay away from it. I guess my lifetime of selfishness qualifies though. I never gave my mother the benefit of the doubt. She made one bad mistake, which resulted in me, and I never let her live it down. In every hardship she faced I showed no sympathy or support. Every good deed she did for my sister and me went without a thank you. She was the one person who unconditionally loved me, and time after time I rejected her. So maybe I was here to atone for my sins and maybe Harold was going to help me do that. Unfortunately I could not simply take out my cell phone and apologize to my mother; like her son’s father, she passed away at a young age.
While I loosely followed the demise of my father through updates from my sister, I essentially ignored all the signs of my mother’s end. My father died very slowly over a five-year period. He suffered from heart disease, lung cancer, type II diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and every other self-inflicted sickness you can imagine. My mother’s death was different. Just about two years ago she began to show signs of dementia. My sister was grief stricken from the first day my mother got lost walking around the neighborhood she had lived in for fifteen years; I brushed it off like it was no big deal. Over the months following that incident she deteriorated quickly. I think I understood what was happening, but I convinced myself that she would be fine. My sister was in the hospital when my mother’s brain finally shut down; I was nowhere to be found. My sister said that in her last few weeks my mother could not remember who her daughter was, but she asked for me every day. I never visited her in the hospital.
As night replaced evening I was not the slightest bit unnerved about being in the cemetery. I had spent so much time here over the last few months that it might as well be the neighborhood park. The sounds were incredible. A full symphony blanketed the dead. The birds of the night cooed with an intensity that is unmatched by day birds. The gusts of air high in the powerful oak trees made me think of an orchestra’s woodwind section. The shuffling of rodents’ feet across the gravel paths played like percussion. The soft sound of a nearby babbling stream was reminiscent of a flute. It was comforting to be surrounded by nature.
“You’re going to like it here, Harold.” I took a deep breath. “You’ve led a good life and now you get to lie back and enjoy it.” I could not stop myself from grinning ear to ear. It took me a second to realize, but I was not smiling for me, I was smiling for Harold. It was an odd feeling, being genuinely happy for somebody else. It was an even odder feeling because the man I was happy for was dead. I laughed at this once more. Baby steps. Before I can be happy for a living person, I need to practice on a dead person. While I quietly laughed at my own personality flaws, I realized something. I do not think I am envious of Harold at all, I think I am proud of him. After witnessing the sad lives of my parents and experiencing the lonely life that I was now leading, I was proud of Harold for simply making it through this harsh world. His friends and family were all genuinely distraught because of his death. I am positive that no one cried at my father’s funeral. My sister said there were no more than a dozen people.
If someone looked at my life from an outside perspective I am sure that person would say I am successful. I have a good paying, stable job. I have a nice four-room apartment and a speedy little Audi that a lot of people could not afford. People that I know invite me to their parties – I am sure that I do not get the first invite, but I usually find myself there. So what am I scared of?
I slumped down to the ground with my back against Harold’s tombstone. “What am I scared of, Harold?” I pretended that Harold was standing over me. I had never seen the man’s face, but I had a pretty good idea of what he looked like. The symphony must have reached intermission because it was very quiet for a few minutes. In the midst of this lonely silence I could have sworn I heard my mother’s voice. It was so hushed I could barely make out what she was saying, but for some reason I knew what she was trying to tell me. I am scared that no matter what I do, I will end up just like my father. So I am afraid to even try.
Like my revelation that I am selfish, these words pierced deep into my chest. A frozen tear began to trickle down my cheek. Is it worse to stay away from people and have them be indifferent about your death, or is it worse being close to people and having them resent you at your death? For some reason these seemed to be my only options. I was on the path to indifference and my father blazed the path to resentment. At least my father tried though. Here I am too much of a coward to even see if I can be loved. Maybe I am not selfish; maybe I am just a coward.
The cold stone sent shivers through my spine. It was finally night. It could have been 10 pm or it could have been four am. It was just night. I could not see more than 20 feet ahead of me. The moon was weaving its way through the thick purple clouds. I was freezing, tired, and sad. I was not sure if I could change my life, but after talking to Harold, I knew I at least had an opportunity to do so. It was a scary thought, trying to be brave. I was almost positive I would fail, but if I did not try I was sure my funeral would look eerily reminiscent of my late father’s. So I would try.
As I used Harold’s tombstone as support to get myself to my feet, I felt like the weight of the vast purple universe had eased off of me. My body was in pain, but my mind for the first time in a while was at ease. I took one last look around me and breathed a sigh of relief that I was alive. I was not sure where I would end my efforts – probably not with a wife and kids – but I knew where I would start: with my beautiful nieces. That is what my mother would want. I patted Harold’s tomb stone a few times and then walked in the direction of the cemetery gate. I did not say it this time, but I thought it: thank you Harold.
Joseph Scarpati is a junior with a psychology major at the University of Maryland. Fiction writing has always been a hobby of his and he recently has been able to immerse himself in creative writing classes. His passion for creative writing has been influenced by his interest in the cognitive processes. This story was inspired by Joseph’s appreciation for the serenity of cemeteries and his curiosity regarding the constant inner monologues of the human psyche. “Cemetery Contemplations” is his first published work.
If you would like to contact Joseph, his email is email@example.com.