Saturday, August 07, 2010

Guardians of Stone

Grand Junction - I returned late this past Tuesday night, and have spent the days since going through mail, catching up on issues around the house, working, and generally trying to shake a quiet melancholy that accompanies every departure from Leslie.

One thing that I grew more familiar with while I was in Pittsburgh was the operations of cemeteries, particularly Sewickley Cemetery, where Michaela is interred. This cemetery has a reputation for meticulous care of their grounds, and for maintaining and encouraging a connection to the history of both the cemetery itself and the community it serves. People started being buried there over 30 years before George Crawford laid eyes on the Grand Valley, and the cemetery celebrated its 150th anniversary this year.

While accompanying Leslie to the cemetery several times before and after Michaela's passing, I was intrigued by the processes, design methods, and meticulous maintenance required to keep such a facility operating in an organized, cohesive fashion. The records of burial sites and maps of burial plots, all maintained by hand or typewritten on cards, set the foundation on which the cemetery is organized and maintained.

Policies regarding certain portions of the cemetery and what can be placed there were also something I was surprised by. In many cemeteries, only grave markers or headstones that are flush to the ground are permitted where there is a hill or incline. This is to allow for maintenance to take place in a more efficient manner, as lawn equipment, tractors, cranes, or excavating machines must be able to freely navigate these areas when necessary. Also, if one wants to erect a grave marker, coordination with the cemetery not only to allow for its placement, but also to have the ground made level and a concrete foundation poured and ready, is essential.

Like many, I never really gave much thought to these intricacies. Cemeteries by and large are out of sight and mind unless you have a loved one there. They offer a connection for the living to those they love who have passed away. They commemorate the sacrifices and loss of too many in times of war. They allow for a place to observe and remember those events in our history.

One memorial located at Sewickley that I made a point of seeing was the USAir Flight 427 memorial. I was working at Life Flight in Pittsburgh on Sept. 8, 1994 when this flight crashed north of the Pittsburgh airport, taking 132 lives. I have a connection to this event that has led me to read many reports and books about it. Yet it was this memorial that helped me to connect to the most important part of the tragedy; the holes left in families, work environments, and the fabric of how our society holds itself together.

A prominent and important feature of cemeteries, especially around Memorial Day, is all those little American flags that adorn the graves of veterans buried there. This struck me as particularly important, as some of the flags at Sewickley Cemetery are placed at the graves of Civil War veterans.

I also thought that this practice was of particular significance, along with the meticulous recordkeeping and maintenance practices, in the wake of the recent news concerning the mismanagement of one of this nation's most hallowed places, Arlington National Cemetery. It's personally hard for me to fathom how those charged with operating the facility with any measure of efficiency could somehow mess up the locations of as many as 6,600 graves.

These errors must have been something that compounded over many years, and the resignation of Arlington's superintendent, hired during the Bush 41 administration, is something that had to happen for the cemetery to move forward. With the help of some technology companies in northern Virginia, Arlington will (finally?) begin the process of digitizing the paper records that it has operated with since Day 1. The staff at Sewickley Cemetery told us that their staff is also beginning the process of entering their records into a digital database, which only makes sense when the contents of numerous file cabinets can be preserved in a virtual state and stored on a small memory card or flash drive.

The digital revolution is also entering the realm of the cemetery in ways that are even more novel and unique. Earlier this year I wrote about the emergence of QR barcodes as a way of linking physical items with limited space, such as printed newspapers and sign-based advertising, with the vast information delivery capabilities of the Internet. Seems that a western Pennsylvania company has taken a page from the Japanese (can't imagine what it must be like to run a cemetery there), and developed a way to link QR barcodes on grave markers to virtual content about the individuals or families buried there that can be accessed via a smartphone.

The owner of this company said in the newspaper story that '"I hate to think that life comes down to this dash' between the birth and death dates on a tombstone." Well, it really does. The poet Linda Ellis has very popularly expanded on this in her poem "The Dash", which Leslie shared with me a couple of years back. It reads, in part:
It matters not how much you own
The cars..the house..the cash
What matters is how you live and love
And how you spend your dash
So in this digital age there emerges a way not only to preserve and catalog those parts of our history represented by those time-weathered stones overlooking, or on the edge of, a town, but to embellish them with a much richer experience of the challenges, the loves, the struggles, and the joys of those who came before us.

I have admittedly been ignorant of the richness of life that one can experience by walking among the dead. Spending more time in a cemetery has reminded me of a great deal that was just filed away as insignificant or too painful, and has given me new appreciation for these places to convey a greater sense of who we were, so that perhaps we can make better sense of who we are.

Thanks to those who are charged with managing these places of repose, all too seemingly forgotten at times, who exercise their duties with the dedication and respect that such a place demands.

While it's on my mind, I'd like to express my condolences to the family and friends of Rebekah King, a co-worker from Cabela's whom I knew, unfortunately, only in passing. Bekah was taken from this world by a drunk driver after only 20 years on this Earth. God's intent in these matters notwithstanding, it's hard to see a promising life snuffed out in such a way.

Bekah's funeral was today. Please remember her, and many others like her, as we continue to struggle with the social paradoxes associated with alcohol and other things that we seem hell-bent on bending our reality with.

Have a good weekend.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Droke, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (barcode on headstone)

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