What is the grass? A child asks Whitman that question in “Song of Myself,” the best-known poem in Leaves of Grass. At first, he says he doesn’t know, but, being Whitman, soon takes up the metaphorical challenge. He offers a series of possibilities—perhaps the grass is the hopeful green flag of his disposition, perhaps the handkerchief of the Lord—before concluding, “now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” He was, I imagine, strolling in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn when he composed those lines. Green-wood is one of a series of rural cemeteries developed in Northern states following the exemplary model set by Boston’s Mt. Auburn. The rural or garden cemetery movement was a response to a burgeoning urban population and growing concern over the unsanitary conditions of existing city graveyards. Bodies were exhumed and relocated to these new park-like settings, and tourists came in droves to escape the noise, chaos, and pollution of the city. Green-wood opened in 1838 and, by 1860, was attracting 500,000 visitors a year. The popularity of garden cemeteries spawned the urban park movement beginning with Central Park which opened in 1857.
Whitman, who, starting as early as age 16 spent several years as a freelance journalist and editor for Brooklyn newspapers, wrote several articles about Green-Wood. It is not surprising that his meditative time there should have greatly influenced Leaves of Grass, published in 1855. I am lucky to live in a city with a smaller version of the garden cemetery, Old Gray Cemetery, founded in 1850.
It is my favorite place for meditative walks. Today, Old Gray’s uncut hair of the grave is confettied with spring wildflowers—buttercups, violets, white and pink clover, and blue lyreleaf sage, a type of salvia. As Whitman said of the grass, the flowers, too, are equalizers of social hierarchy:
… a uniform hieroglyphic . . . Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
The grass and flowers adorn the unmarked paupers’ graves at the far end of Old Gray as well as those with beautiful statuary, like that of Lillian Gaines, who died in 1876 at age seven. Why she died we don’t know. Lillian’s monument, a statue of a little girl in mournful pose, is a sentimental favorite with visitors. Often, I have seen flowers in her lap; on occasion I have put a wildflower bouquet there myself. Today, I see that someone has tied a Raggedy Ann doll.
Lillian’s premature death saddens me, but it would not sadden Whitman. Whitman was very Buddhist in his ideas about death. His Victorian pronouncements on the subject are only slight variations of passages in the works of the modern-day Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. Essentially, they both say that the body, like the grass, is merely a manifestation, that before they were body or grass, they were something else and will be something else yet again and again. Both men find in nature validation for their beliefs.
What do you think, Whitman asks his reader:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
And then tells you what he thinks:
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Hanh, in his book, No Death, No Fear, asks the same question—“Where do we come from? Where do we go?”—and gives the same answer. There is no coming and no going, he says, only manifesting if the conditions are right or not manifesting if they are not. Coming and going, birth and death are merely ideas; once we liberate ourselves from ideas, then we will have no fear. To see deeply, he says, we have to first learn the art of stopping.
The Buddha is often portrayed as sitting on a lotus flower….. If we’re capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower—whether that is at the base of a tree, on the grass, or on a stone bench. When we’re really sitting, we’re free from all worries, from all regrets, from all anger.… With every breath, we can generate mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Insight is our liberation. Insight liberates us from our fear, our ignorance, our loneliness and despair. It is this insight that helps us to penetrate deeply into the nature of no-birth and no-death, and the interconnected nature of all things.
I love reading Whitman and Hanh, kindred spirits writing the same message across time and continents. They offer such a comforting (and, to me, rational) explanation for the mystery of death, much more than Christianity has ever offered. But, unlike them, I am not yet able to live the inter-being, to liberate myself from ideas. I can only intellectualize. Visiting cemeteries has become a kind of mindfulness practice for me, a way to be present and not floundering continually in ideas. I’m not very good at it even there, but a cemetery seems the best possible setting in which to ask these questions, to ever hope of reaching a deeper understanding. Contemplating the hair of the grave seems a fine starting point.