The Graveyard Shift and a Near-Death Experience on a Spring Day

“Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” – Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

“Some day soon, perhaps in 40 years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead—when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies, too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?” – Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

A gentle breeze, carrying with it the smell of fertilizer and grass, rocked the most eager of flower buds starting to peek out of the ground. Above, the sun was shining, and the sky was a crisp blue. Campus was filled with a renewed sense of energy due to the first signs of spring, and the weather would only get better from here. For once in my life as a biology major, I wasn’t drowning in lab reports, problem sets, and midterms. I could actually go outside and feel the sun directly on my face instead of through the library windows. I had to use my free time wisely, so I put some thought in what I wanted to do. It certainly was a beautiful day outside—so I decided to visit a graveyard.

2150 Comm. Ave. presses against the border of Evergreen Cemetery. The noise of construction on the new dorm permeated the normally still air around the cemetery, which only made me slightly concerned for the future residents who disturbed the restful dead. Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1850 by the town of Brighton and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Built in a rural cemetery style and following the natural curvature of the hill, the cemetery’s paved paths form concentric ovals and wind their way through graves dating back to the mid-1800s. On top of the hill in the middle of the cemetery stands a towering monument, topped with a soaring eagle, dedicated to the Brighton residents who gave their lives fighting for the Union in the Civil War. But despite all of the cemetery’s historical importance, it didn’t really live up to its name when I visited that day.

Leaves from countless autumns past had accumulated into a thick orange carpet that muffled the sound of my footsteps. Pools of stagnant water from the previous rain submerged parts of the paths. Twisted tree branches had begun to slowly suffocate a crumbling footbridge on the outskirts of the grounds. Now that I was in the middle of the silent cemetery, I was grateful for any sound that would remind me of the living, whether it was the nearby construction, the wind in the trees, or the birds poking around in the earth. The late-afternoon sun beat down on my head as I began to walk the circuitous path through the cemetery.

The solid, lifeless faces of tombstones of every shape and size, all engraved with similar-sounding names, popped up everywhere I turned in a cold, cruel parody of the budding flowers back on campus. Even though the paths gave the cemetery some semblance of order, tombstones stuck out of the ground in random spots, making it impossible to walk in a straight line without stumbling on a tombstone sinking into the ground. Some graves were marked with a simple engraved stone in the ground. Others were obelisks rising into the sky, topped with statues of guardian angels. Married couples were buried side by side with matching tombstones. A mother and father engraved heartbreaking epitaphs on the tombstone of their lost baby. The earth slowly swallowed up older tombstones that had no one to care for them, with exposure to the elements erasing the inscribed names from memory. A name that had been freshly etched into a family tombstone shone a clean white compared to the older black cuts on the granite.

Peals of laughter suddenly cut through the air, snapping me out of my reverie. From a distance, I could make out a group of students walking down one of the many paths that zigzags through the tombstones, no doubt using the cemetery as a shortcut to Cleveland Circle, skirting death to get back to life.

I realized I was making myself sad looking at these rows of tired tombstones leaning against each other, bearing the names of people whose lives I will never know and whose stories have been lost in time. Our society doesn’t like to face death—we allocate a small plot of land for death and keep it out of sight and out of mind until it inevitably strikes. Death seems to be the be-all and end-all of human existence, the bookend of our mortality, and I think it’s perfectly healthy to fear it while in the midst of life. But I like to regard death as one of the ultimate expressions of love. We lay our loved ones to rest and show our love by bringing them flowers and small gifts that they would enjoy. We place a monument of solid stone in the ground in a final act of defiance of death to mark the significance of one mere life. We share stories and keep their memories alive for as long as we can until it’s finally our turn to rest.

I made my way back to campus, thinking of those quotes from Clarke and Yalom. Some of the people in that cemetery have been dead for well over a century, their tombstones neglected but still standing, as if demanding that they be acknowledged. I conceded to them, and also thought of my personal 30 ghosts standing behind me. And as I recall all of their names from my experience walking through Evergreen Cemetery, I only hope that they were able to live one last time and enjoy the beautiful spring day.

Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor

Maddie Phelps

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