Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Westbury cemetery begins where the town straggles to an end, the last of the blocks - part backyard and part paddock - trailing away to meet a rough road that leads over a hill. There is a cattle grid at the gate and a blue parrot in a thicket. We walk to the old section where things are shrouded with rust and lichen, and stones are often leaning or broken.

The girls love it here. For Nell, the pleasures are simple: space, birds, things to touch, and her family close by. For Lucy, the draw is darker. She is figuring out death, re-writing each ending so that they become a misunderstanding, a long nap or a trip to the shops to buy chicken. She wants to know about the people who sleep here: names, lives, the babies in their cots; mostly, she wants to know about the reunions where people discover that no-one died, and all are with their families again.

That's okay, because it's a nice story, a story I want for myself when I sit at night and miss my Grammy so much the weight of the sadness brings her to me. And the marking of death with its ritual and belief is only the theme that binds together the short stories told in this place. Each headstone suggests a life in two dozen words. And these lives caught together in the family plots tell us about extended families and a time when people stayed close to home. We can read about a history of peace and a history of war. We note, through the growing difference between 'born' and 'deceased' and the declining numbers of children listed the success of public health initiatives. If we were the type who knew about such things we could make a comment on the aesthetics of death, chemistry and ... stuff about plants (clearly we are not). And we are acknowledging an easily forgotten link between ourselves and the place and people we live among. When we go to a cemetery - and we quite often do, as a pleasant outing - we are sharing a lot more than an Addams family vibe.

Al has always joked that if we home school, he'll set the girls up with the 1984 edition of the New Knowledge Encyclopedias (which we do in fact own) and tell them to update alphabetically. But I'd take them to a cemetery and say "Take a look around, have a think, and let me know what you come up with". I'd hope they would have some very interesting things to say.