Lessons from a Cemetery

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.–Ecclesiastes 7:2 (NIV)

Day 6 of the Great American Vacation. Shelly and I have escaped from relatives and are chillin’ in the Mug Shots Coffee Shop in Oroville, California. We’ve been entertained and toured by my sisters, in-laws and cousins for the past couple of days. Last night was the big dinner with everyone I have ever been related to in attendance. Now for some peace and quiet.

I picked up a souvenir (used) cap while in Paradise the other day. It is green and reads, “Paradise Cemetery.” Yesterday we actually visited the Sterling City Cemetery just north of Paradise, a boomtown logging center around 1910 and now with a population of 210. My kids have grown up familiar with my affinity for cemeteries; when I was a student in Austria, I got in the habit of trying to find the oldest headstoneĀ in the yard. Today that habit continues.

I find it amusing that my writing students often get very uncomfortable around cemeteries. One of the exercises I regularly have my students do is come with me to the cemetery for about half an hour, then write about it. That exercise does two things: first, it helps them get in touch with their emotions when they write, and second, it brings them reluctantly to the realization that death is something we all have in common.

Writers need grounding, especially young writers. Almost without exception, my students want to write about things that have absolutely nothing to do with their lives, and which they have absolutely no experience with. Students can write fantasy, science fiction and romance, sure; but what they write needs to find that grounding, that commonality, before readers will be able to identify and appreciate what they’re reading. Fiction writing is about exploring the human experience. What more common experiences can a person find than writing about living and dying?

I talked to Shelly this morning about how age affects the way we view the world. It’s like a reverse view of the world that toddlers have, where everything is new and fresh. Instead, as we grow older, our view of what’s important changes. Much of what we fret over or spend our time in pursuit of throughout our life is simply a waste of time. Unfortunately, we usually don’t realize what’s important until most of our life is behind us.

I don’t mean to make this blog post maudlin, but I do want to make it meaningful. And meaning seems to become more obvious as we get older. Funny that.