For most people, graveyards are places they choose not to visit unless they absolutely, positively can’t avoid it. That either means that someone close to them has passed away, or they themselves have. But I have a slightly different take on things: I find graveyards to be very inspiring.
As a writer, I find inspiration in a lot of places, but what appeals to me about old graveyards (the older, the better!) is that they are filled with stories waiting to be told – or to be imagined. My former writing partner and I used to spend a lot of time wandering around two of the oldest graveyards in our city. We found that the environment was not only useful because it was quiet, but we found that being surrounded by death makes you look at life in a new way. We even found things to laugh about! For example, meaning absolutely no disrespect, what would you think upon discovering a tombstone with the name Studness on it?
Graveyards are great sources for names as well. Many of my characters names have been uncovered on tombstones, wholly or in part. I find names of towns I’ve never heard of that go into a book of story notes I keep. I also find pieces of history that inform the present. In one tiny family cemetery down in the southern part of Utah, I noted how several members of one family ranging in ages from 13 months up to 34 years, had all passed away within weeks of each other. Clearly this was some sort of epidemic that hit their family, and perhaps the wider community (such as it was) at the time. My mind immediate went to the idea of being one of the survivors, or worse, of being the only survivor. From that point on, a new story began to take shape in my mind and it is now lined up (behind a few others) waiting for me to work on.
The headstones themselves tell a remarkable story. The large, ornate mausoleums stand side by side with the traditional arched grave markers. To me it’s an interesting contrast, and a little bit ironic. No matter how much money you had in life, and even how you try to flaunt it once you’re gone, if both graves were excavated you couldn’t tell by the bones who belonged in which location. But there are those who insist on leaving a lasting mark even though eventually, no one will remain to appreciate who lies within nor what his or her net worth once was.
Cemeteries also force us to confront our own mortality. Little else speaks to us of death the way a bunch of dead bodies can! For many people the idea of death is a frightening one. Sometimes it’s the fear of the unknown. Sometimes it’s a fear of some form of eternal punishment. I don’t want to get into a philosophical or religious discussion here, but I will say, I don’t find anything frightening about being dead. How could it possibly be worse than the hell we humans have created in this life? For my part, I’m comfortable with the thought of death because it truly is the great equalizer. We all end up in the same place (more or less) dealing with the same circumstances. Death is far less frightening than the dentist I went to as a child – that’s for sure.
The old Salt Lake City cemetery is located on the north end of the city, up in the foothills, and I often wonder if there were to be an earthquake of any significant magnitude if we wouldn’t be seeing some of our dearly departed once again. My favorite cemetery here, however, is Mount Olivet located near the University of Utah. Lovely, large trees, a man-made stream that meanders through the location, and a resident herd of deer make this place idyllic. There is a section where many members of the Greek community are buried which is very near the Jewish section of the grounds. The marble mausoleums are there, and sculptures of angels and young girls as well. Many members of the various Masonic fraternities are buried here, and they even have their own amphitheater for holding services. It’s a lovely place to sit and write as well, might I say.
I have on my Facebook page a collection of photos taken at Mount Olivet, including one of Studness, and a few others I have enjoyed for various reasons. If you happen to be in the area, I encourage you to stop by and visit. I think you’ll find, as I have, that hanging out in cemeteries can be a very life-affirming and inspiring way to spend some time.
Mimi A. Williams is the pen name for Kim Williams Justesen. She is a Salt Lake City native who has been writing for more than 15 years. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English/Theater from Westminster College, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Kim has taught English, Writing, and Humanities classes at local colleges and has been actively involved in a number or writing organizations. Her first horror novel, Beautiful Monster, came out in 2012. You can learn more about her at her web site and blog: http://kwjwrites.wordpress.com