GUEST POST BY EMILIO CARRERO

 

 

NOTES ON A CEMETERY

by Emilio Carrero

 

It was on my morning run, a few days ago, that I saw a deer waiting to cross the road. The time was around 6 a.m., about an hour before high tide. I slowed up as soon as I saw it standing on the edge of the grass, waiting. Then suddenly it shot across the road in two strides, clacking against the asphalt, into the woods. I kept running, continuing south toward the marshes in Castalia. The moment was brief and I didn’t think much of it.

The next day I went to the Old North Head Cemetery right off route 776, one of the main narrow roads that run through Grand Manan. The graveyard can’t be seen from the road but lies behind the  Church of Ascension on Cemetery Lane. I had passed by it on my runs every day since getting to Grand Manan and had driven by it on our car trips south into the island. Cemetery Lane slopes upward, leading to the top of a hill. The Old North Head Cemetery sits atop of it, overlooking North Head Harbor.

I had been meaning to visit the cemetery from the moment I got onto Grand Manan and yet in some way was also avoiding it. The closeness of it to the main road—where car after car drove by, where people rode their bikes, and, more so, where right off the coast many boats with fishermen, many of whose friends and family, ancestors, now lay in the cemetery felt ominous. The church was the second ever established on the island, and its steep roofs and large stained-glass windows lining the walls made it look unlike any other building on the island. I put off visiting for close to a week.

It was hard to say, each day as I ran past it, why I never walked inside. I didn’t necessarily have to run past it and yet I did. And I didn’t have to avoid it and I did. It’s not unusual, I realize, to be discomforted by cemeteries and it’s equally common to find them comforting. They are haunting places and resting places. I had always loved cemeteries growing up. I was fascinated by them, mainly because there was one close to my childhood home. One that I would visit alone, often. My visits to this cemetery were always unplanned, spurred by normal childhood boredom and loneliness, and it was as if in mid-walking I’d realize I was again walking somewhere familiar.

I knew of the superstitions surrounding cemeteries. In a way I wanted to prove them wrong, that I was in no way bound by the dead. I still remember the graveyard I used to walk through as a kid. I’d walk the paths, walk over the graves defiantly, even dig my fingers into the dirt without concern. I’d imagine the lives of the names inscribed in stone, tracing my fingers through the engravings to feel what would come through the porousness of my fingers and stay with me. I dared the past to reach up and grab me. Then I’d walk home still intact, no worse for wear; triumphant again. I continued visiting this cemetery for a few years as a boy, sneaking off without my family noticing, from second grade until fourth grade, before we were evicted from my home at age ten. That eviction coincided with the end of my trips to that childhood cemetery, and I wouldn’t visit any for a long time. I became convinced, as a kid, that I had somehow cursed my family, causing us to lose our home. I never said this out right to myself but I internalized a lesson, the way kids do, that cemeteries were meant to be far away places, and that in order to keep living—due to circumstance—it was necessary for me to remain as far away from the dead as possible.

***

The road winded up Cemetery Lane, past the Ascension Church and into the cemetery, separating the old graveyard from the new one. Seagulls lined the top of the roof. To the left of the gulls stood the belfry, whose bell looked rusted and out of use. I imagined the fisherman out in the harbor could always see the church in the distance, a kind of shadow of their home. At the front of the church stood a World War I Memorial with a cannon on each side. It read: “In Memory of The Boys of Grand Manan Who Died in the World War.” I walked past the church and noticed a passage inscribed in the doorway from John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

The old cemetery had many tombstones that were weathered beyond visibility, covered in the burnt color that lichen leaves, while some were disappearing into the overgrown grass, falling into the ground, collapsing slowly at the hourglass pace nature moves by. I could imagine that in the future the old would have more space than the new. That it would be possible, if not for records and the memories of families, for graves to be built on top of graves. Left on its own, nature can’t remember for us.

The sea, historically, has been deadly for many residents of the island. While the land has claimed many as well, especially children, who in the early years of settlement on Grand Manan, died due to influenza, tuberculosis, and even food shortages. There were names I kept seeing as I walked through the graveyard, surnames of families that had a rich history on the island—Ingersoll, Gaskill, Kinghorne. It was the burial grounds for many early settlers and also kept the monument for the twenty-one seamen who drowned from the wreckage of Lord Ashburton. 

Unlike as a kid, these names had a history I was aware of. I didn’t have to imagine. I could see them everywhere. They were fishermen, historians, politicians, mothers and fathers, children. I saw these names at other places I went. It was haunting to see those names inscribed into gravestones only to see them hours later placarded on fishing boats, on people’s name tags, written on mailboxes. To see ancestors so close to descendants was like nothing I had seen before. As residents had told me, everyone on the island knew or was related to someone who had ultimately died at sea. There was an air of haunting wherever I went; not by the dead but by the living.

***

It was at the cemetery that my friend said he saw a deer behind the chain-link fence. I hadn’t seen the deer this time, though I imagined it watching us through its animal eyes, the dead buried underneath us as we walked over them, reading their names and dates inscribed into headstones. I was reminded first of the deer I saw a day earlier; but standing in the cemetery, surrounded by headstones, I remembered back to a time a few years ago when I had driven by a dead deer. I was driving on a back road in Florida late at night. I slowed down to drive around it, taking in the image of it, how it seemed to have almost made it across the road only to have been hit by a fast-moving car, the only speed that cars drove at on the back roads late at night. It lay motionless: its body half on the road, half on the gravel. My headlights shined on its head, its eyes unmoving, mouth open. It didn’t seem real to see something so big now dead. But I knew it was. I could see a darkened pool of blood from underneath it. 

I kept walking through the cemetery, thinking of those deer, both living and dead. It was strange to have both on my mind, to remember the dead one so vividly while the living one had flashed past me. I couldn’t help but think about how permanent death was—not in front of me but in the mind’s eye—while the living seemed to flit all around me. It begged the question in my mind of whether these memorials—monuments and headstones—were the living’s way of bringing some permanency to their own memories. Since once someone passes away and is laid into the Earth, the ground holds the dead all the same way but every person must hold the dead differently. 

***

The longer I’ve stayed on the island, the more I see the memories that weave it together. Whether these memories are woven tighter than most places is hard to say, but maybe that matters far less than the fact that memories are easier to see on the island than most. That the fishing boats filled with fishermen who empty the herring weirs and pull in the lobster traps will make it back to their homes, stop at the small independent stores for supplies and food, pray on Sundays at the Anglican and Baptist and Catholic churches —they are all inextricably tied together, woven into the surrounding nature that will eventually overtake them. At sea and on dry land, the closeness of everything, how connected it all is does feel, in a way, spiritual. The living live right by the dead. And the dead rest right by the same nature that killed them. What holds them all together is the human insistence of memory. 

None of these memories—the stubbornness of some or the fleetingness of others—are created equal in each person. Since the North Head Cemetery reminds me of my childhood, which I remember alone; whereas for residents, the graveyard, as seen by the flowers laid at tombstones, the carefully kept nature of some family plods, and the disarray and weathering of others is a site of both celebration and mourning, permanence and decay, the sacred and profane. If there is a place that resembles how the body holds memories, it would make sense to resemble a graveyard. Closeness, it would seem, is both their beauty and burden. 

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