Cemeteries, the most accessible spiritual sanctuaries in the world, are also some of the last green (i.e., chemical-free) spaces in America. I try to visit a cemetery whenever I travel to a new city; of all I’ve seen, from Mount Pleasant in Toronto to Père Lachaise in Paris, one of my favorites is our own Old Gray here in Knoxville which inspires a lot of my writing. Within its tiny circumference are infinite worlds of possibility.
There is something in Eastern philosophy that says when you are bored, it is because you are too fickle or the places in which you choose to spend your time are too superficial. To regain perspective, you must go to a cemetery. There, under a tree, in the charnel ground, having indifference between relatives and enemies, indifference between life and decay, you will practice. Then your bindu will flow. Then you will know how to have intercourse between emptiness and appearance. Bindu is held to be the point at which creation begins and the point at which the many become one.
This past weekend I discovered a new cemetery tucked away on a hillside at Mead’s Quarry, part of Ijams’ Nature Center in South Knoxville.
The cemetery sits about two-thirds of the way down. Originally the Dempsey Johnson family plot twenty years before quarrying began, it later evolved into a community cemetery for the families of quarry workers.
Burials span 1870 to 1939. There is a sign with a picture of the Johnson family spread along what is probably the same hillside, about forty somber-faced people in dark clothing ranging from infancy to old age. They are probably Scottish, probably Quakers–I found a daughter of Dempsey Johnson online who was a member of the Friends’ Church.
Ijams took over maintenance of the cemetery in 2001 and, with the help of local Boy Scouts, cleared and restored it, adding the sign and a bench. You can sit there in the quiet with light sifted through trees and contemplate how life must have been in the years following the Civil War, or how it must have been to carry a casket uphill. As with all things sobering, an Emily Dickinson poem comes to mind:
This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies,
And Lads and Girls;
Was laughter and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls.
This passive place a Summer’s nimble mansion,
Where Bloom and Bees
Fulfilled their Oriental Circuit,
Then ceased like these.
Emily was no tease–her metaphors no half-way antics. “My business,” she declared, “is circumference.” Circuit and circumference were two of the most used words in her lexicon, and she meant them in the most profound sense. The brief circuit of Tharp Trace
seems a metaphor she might have appreciated and certainly cemeteries, which symbolically represent both the point at which two worlds intersect and the bridge between.
She was, I think, very Zen in her ideas about death, in its promise of eternity, not in the simplistic, restrictive Christian sense of “Heaven,” but in the ongoingness of all matter. She had a ‘seeing eye’; she didn’t have to wander the earth a perpetual tourist–a “birder” as my late husband called them, people who are intent only on checking off the next bird or attraction, not in actually seeing them. She spent her life inside a small circumference and, yet, was able to experience eternity there.
A Grave — is a restricted Breadth —
Yet ampler than the Sun —
And all the Seas He populates
And lands he looks upon
To Him who on its small Repose
Bestows a single Friend —
Circumference without Relief —
Or Estimate — or End