The cemetery spread still and quiet at the edge of the old field, at the verge of a thin forest. It straddled the two as a transition, a place of passing, and in some ways it seemed as though it tied together the forest and field into one great cycle of being.
The field lay rutted and neglected, the leavings of long generations of extractive farming. Beneath its dried grass and tangled weeds lay hardpan, near impenetrable, and those who walked its length often tripped and stumbled on the trenches and furrows that lurked beneath the cover of weed and grass. Horses had once plowed the field and then eventually tractors; and in that generational change came the slow destruction that had left behind so much death: of the field, of farmers, of the land’s health and vibrancy, of all those who worked it originally thought it could be.
Out of the edge of the flat and featureless field rose gently the cemetery’s leavings. Nothing enclosed it; no fence encircled the final restings; no borders marked its boundaries. And yet it came clearly up from the ground, the brown of the field rising into the gray of long-weathered, broken tombstones, while those in turn gave way to the growth of trees. Here they clustered in the earth: oak and ash primarily, trees as old as the death that nourished them. They rose curved and sturdy from the hard soil.
In their height and age they were the most striking of all the land around them. They gave way to forest beyond but it was lesser, younger: human-planted, poorly tended, and of a halfhearted attempt to regain something wild. The oak and ash, though, the trees rooted to mark death, echoed with something more elemental. They too had been placed in the ground at the hands of humans but they had not been put there with any mistaken notion of the wild. They were put there to feed off death. They were a mark of life staked against the hard reality of life’s end. They were transformation and transmogrification, the weary acceptance of that which the humans could not defeat, and their small attempt to make something new from it.
Nobody knew how many dozens had been buried in the cemetery. Few still knew it existed. Those who did came quiet and furtive, late in the afternoon and at the edge of evening, soft in their footsteps across the hazardous field. They came via a circuitous path, a winding trail that led from the nearby village, but despite the cemetery’s proximity it had fallen into amnesia, had been mostly lost in past generations. It was only the very old who came now, unsteady and attentive to their own eventual final resting place. As they left the village the young wondered where they went.
No one living had planted the trees but those few who still came to look upon them could trace them back through their own lineage. On scraps of paper, in old journals, the records were kept. Those who had died and those who had honored them. The hands that had rooted the trees. The long dead who, through their efforts, remained in the smallest way alive.
When they came, the few who remembered, they would sit at the rough edge of the cemetery and look out upon the stone and wood, the living and the dead. They settled themselves carefully to the ground and crossed their legs, folded their hands, and breathed deep from the clear air and looked out upon the sparse forest that lay beyond the dead and felt the abused field at their back. They traced the lines of the trees, their trunks heavy against the land and their twisted limbs against the sky. They ran their eyes along those branches and thought of all that had passed since the trees first grew: the life and death, the generations fallen, the world gone to disrepair and now slowly righting itself, but the scars still scattered everywhere. They traced the growth and wondered how long the trees would live, when they too would fall to the earth and join the humans long lying there dead. And they wondered, when it happened, what the world then would be.
4 thoughts on “The Forgotten Cemetery”
Interesting and somber meditation – thank you!
I recently finished reading a fascinating book that might be of interest – it reflects on the scale of time and ruins from a pre-Columbian culture in what is now the southwestern US and northern Mexico: ‘House of Rain’ by Craig Childs.
BTW – finally ordered issue no. 16 of ‘Into the Ruins’ to complete my set. Still catching up on my reading.
Best of luck!
Thank you, Patricia! I appreciate it. And thank you as well for the book recommendation–that not only sounds interesting, but it could dovetail well with an essay idea I have. I just put it on hold at the library, so hopefully will have it soon.
As for Issue 16, got your order and will get it in the mail soon. I hope you end up liking it, and that my story in it treats you well!
Very atmospheric and evocative! I did my PhD in Historical Archaeology on Cemetery Studies, and reading this takes me back over a decade to my cataloguing of some thousand graves. The sense of time passing, and the gradual accumulation of change, both intended and natural, is strong and poignant. Excellent!
Thank you, Mike! I appreciate it.
I have to say, that sounds like a pretty fascinating PhD study. I imagine there was some fascinating work involved!