Reflections in a cemetery

9 December 2017

I suppose it’s inevitable that visits to a cemetery inspire us to pause and to reflect upon our mortality. I have found myself often reflecting upon my own life, with its trials and tribulations and acknowledging that all whose mortal remains lie six foot below the surface upon which I stand, experienced similar events in the course of their own lifetimes. And suddenly those ‘big’ issues that test us in daily life melt in the face of the reality that it all comes to this – the end of life, it’s experiences, it’s emotions and yes, even its wealth!

Since I’m the last living relative in this part of the world, I’m officially designated as the ‘carer of the graves’ of those long gone, by the extended family now living abroad. On one occasion, a cousin of mine was visiting and asked me to take her to see her late father’s grave. She lived in California and at the time of his death was heavily pregnant and couldn’t travel across for his funeral. And so as the official ‘carer of the graves’ I accompanied her to the graveside. And there without warning occurred a gut-wrenching outpouring of grief followed by a spontaneous reflection of her earliest nurture years. In fascination I witnessed the deepest of psychoanalytic events prompted by physically being at the graveside of a parent – one of the core players in the nurture space. I remember reflecting that perhaps the most effective psychotherapy could be that which is conducted at the graveside of a deceased parent. Confronted by our finite mortality and being powerfully prompted by the memory of the late nurturer may well result in many more dramatic and cathartic breakthroughs.

I recently attended the funeral of one of our close friend’s mother. She had died barely six months following the death of her husband. They had lived a full life into their early nineties and had been married for seventy years! I had observed how mom’s health deteriorated literally from the moment that her late husband had died. She immediately started losing weight, becoming terminally emaciated at the time of her death. Towards the end there was evidence of multi-organ failure together with the appearance of a highly malignant cancer. From my perspective it was a clear manifestation of the emotional effects on body structure and function. It’s a study which has fascinated me for more than thirty five years. Following a profound loss, the individual enters a space characterized by an almost terminal dearth of meaning and purpose. And unless they find new meaning and purpose to provide the safety net, death soon becomes inevitable. In regard to the death of a spouse following on soon after the passing of a life-long partner, I would propose that the passing of the remaining partner may well be due to a broken heart. And indeed it is documented that one can in fact die of a broken heart.

The broken heart syndrome, also called takotsubo syndrome (named after an octopus trap in Japanese), is associated with a rapid ballooning of the left ventricle. It typically follows on after great emotional distress. Most individuals survive but a small percentage of individuals succumb to the condition. It was proposed that the actress Debbie Reynolds succumbed to the broken heart syndrome within days of the death of her actress daughter Carrie Fisher.

It is not surprising therefore that much fine prose and poetry have been inspired by visits to cemeteries. The Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom made a point of visiting cemeteries and specific graves to derive the inspiration to write. Similarly the writer James Silas Rogers focuses most of his writing on cemeteries, explaining that ‘cemeteries are never emotionally neutral’.

And so I would conclude by advising those who feel the need to write but who are experiencing degrees of writer’s cramp, to go and visit a cemetery. If you still don’t come up with inspiring prose, at least it will cause a pause and some reflection. Perhaps then the issues that you carry may well dilute out as you’re confronted by the reality of our finite sojourn upon this earth.


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