It is my fascination with and celebration of life that keep me returning to the cemetery. 

Cemeteries and Celebrations

I just got back from a walk in Hollywood Cemetery. Normally I walk there for exercise, but sometimes the benefit of a cemetery stroll is more spiritual. Cemetery walking is a great priority-minder for me, helping me keep my life in perspective — am I celebrating life or merely living it? The cemetery always urges me to ask.

I am fortunate to live on the edge of this spectacular national landmark. Hollywood's 135 acres of rolling hills and winding roads serve as host to a wide variety of artwork in marble, iron, bronze and glass. And then there are the trees. Hollywood's trees are huge and far older than most trees in this country; there are holly, sycamore, oak, black gum, maple, fir, pine, hemlock, magnolia and more. Once, while lost in anxious thought, I could swear I heard an old sycamore laughing at my tiny concerns. This giant, more than 150 years old, has watched over many burials and seemed to say: "Why are you polluting your life with petty worries? They will pass as will you — enjoy your life while you can."

Arbor-born or not, that's good advice, especially these days.

The beauty of the cemetery aids my meditation. Hollywood Cemetery features an impressive gallery of marble art festooned with potent symbols and carvings. There are elaborately carved mausoleums with Tiffany windows and images of the hourglass with wings. Tempus fugit.

Often, right next to these bold monuments are smaller, humbler markers with no decoration and sometimes only a name and the date of death. No matter what their fortunes on earth, the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown all end up on the same level. I often wonder who had the most time to enjoy life while they were alive?

That's all that really matters. No matter what ambitious accomplishments or notoriety we achieve in this life, eventually, ultimately, it is all forgotten as we dissolve into the elements from which we came.

Staying conscious of this can be a liberating experience. Often when I tell others that I'm a cemetery walker, they scowl or look a bit nervous as if I'm some sort of ghoul. Far from a fascination with death, it is my fascination with and celebration of life that keep me returning to the cemetery. The way I figure it, death is the only certainty in life so it makes sense to work toward accepting that fact and living accordingly. Cemetery walking prevents me from forgetting my final appointment and constantly challenges me to examine my life and how I spend my time.

When I feel cultural pressure to strive, to accomplish and accumulate, I look at the graves and I consider the passing of time. What speed! What do I want to do with this brief moment? Why should I strive, especially if it keeps me from my family and friends? By necessity, the simpler pleasures of life must be abbreviated if not foregone altogether in our striving. Originally, the word "ambition" had negative connotations, indicating an inordinate desire for recognition, but in our media-soaked world what is that recognition really worth? I don't much care if anyone notices me or not, I just want to make a living and have enough leisure time to live my own life.

I'll never be wealthy or famous, but my biggest ambition is to celebrate life with my family and friends as often as possible. And I don't mean the standard yearly schedule of parties either. I'm talking about gathering on a weekly basis at a minimum. Any excuse to get together will do. I want to make more time for celebrating life: food, drinks, music and laughter, plenty of hugs and kisses. Hey, why not?

Who knows when I'll get to do it again? And this time of year is my favorite for celebration and feasting. I don't "accomplish" much, but I go to lots of parties and feasts, and I have a wonderful time with those I love most. This makes me feel incredibly rich.

We laugh and carry on, bitch about the news or pontificate on our favorite theories. We eat sumptuous feasts prepared with love, and we pat our bellies in great satisfaction. Sometimes we stand mesmerized around a fire as our ancestors have done for thousands of generations. I wonder if, lacking our ambition, older cultures spent more time in celebration? I'll bet they did — many of them had far more leisure time than we do, oddly enough. Their simpler lives left them with more free time for celebration.

We need to follow their example. I think that all of this holiday season should be set aside for a long string of celebrations. I'm not just talking about the obligatory office party or the traditional family gathering, I mean two months of continuous partying. Just think of what it would do for the economy. Aside from that, it would be a wise way to spend our time: living, laughing and loving to the fullest while we're still alive. Even if you don't walk in the cemetery, modern times should be enough to remind us that anything can happen to anyone at any time. Go ahead, eat that second piece of pie if you want to.

Rather than fear death, I am working to keep it in proper perspective and allow it to be a motivational tool for celebration. Human life, even if we lived to be 120, is as ephemeral as the seasons. Even if we accomplish great things and amass huge fortunes, the time soon comes when none of it matters and no one remembers. But those times spent lovingly involved with family and friends, placing them first, works a magic that not only enriches and refreshes us now but also is a joy that is passed on from generation to generation.

Lee Carleton is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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