Burying the Dead


I’m a sucker for nostalgia.  I’ve always been moved by places, or remembrances, or scents, or sounds that transport me to another place and another time; usually a better one. When Granny Spurgeon died a few Februaries ago, I flew out to Oregon to say goodbye and share emotions with my family. In the rental car, during the drive from Portland to Gold Beach, I was overwhelmed by the sights and sounds on the Umpqua River, and over Humbug Mountain near Port Orford. So much green. Huge old myrtles, heavily mossed, down the river roads, made me remember Granny with a depth and poignancy that I would have never experienced if I were left to mourn her passing in Virginia.

Cemeteries do the same thing; even ones where I am neither friend nor family to the dead. Memories are left there, by the living loved ones, and planted as a memorial for us, in future centuries, to meditate. I look at the grave of old soldiers, or young children, and briefly scan the life of the occupant.  Did they live in a log cabin? Who loved them? were the buried near family? Were they buried in the shade? In a forgotten corner? Is the grave marker ostentatious? primitive? Frightening?  Soon, I’ve painted a picture of the dead, and that memory I can carry in my heart forever.

So Tuesday evening, when we drove onto the Bethany University campus, I fully expected this kind of visceral reaction. We passed the guard shack, and the administrative buildings, and the hole-in-the-ground that was the cafeteria. The dorms, the chapel, the Spot, and even my old workplace (Wilson Library) with the 7-foot-tall wire-and-sheet-metal globe in front of it.  We drove past all three of the homes we occupied as a family while we lived and worked for the campus. I stared at the Redwood Auditorium–now much-improved–and the hole that used to be Don Ryall’s Office. I had memories associated with every building on campus, and I felt nothing.

Maybe I had closed myself to the memories? No; the College was like a husk. I didn’t want to see it because it wasn’t anything more than a place. The people I knew and loved still lived in the community, and I was happy to visit them, but the place itself evoked not even the slightest bit of nostalgia. What I encountered within myself was a substantial amount of guilt, precisely because I felt nothing.

Perhaps my years as a faculty member had driven from me any love for the place. When you see something from the inside, it drives a little of the romance away. But I knew Granny Spurgeon pretty well.  I had deep emotions attached to visiting the place of her birth and death (she died, after 85 years, only three miles from where the home where was born. Who, in the 21st century, can say that?) And she drove me crazy. But still, I loved her, and had hundreds of nostalgic memories of her.

So why did I feel nothing for Bethany? I realized that I had done my mourning a few years ago. I saw it being consumed by a cancerous, demoralizing debt and I grieved in 2007, when I left the campus for the last time, and arrived here in Virginia.

My nostalgia-machine is still intact.  I still have dreams, and still associate deep emotions, as an example, to the passing scent of “that perfume she wore, that night at the dance so many years ago.” I’m still a romantic at heart, and believe in the mission of the school that was my home for 25 years. The torch has been passed on. The memorials still stand, and my memories are still intact. But for better or worse, my mourning ended years ago.

Requiescant in pace.

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2 thoughts on “Burying the Dead”

  1. Bravo. I think it takes a certain amount of self-knowledge to realize where you are on your journey, and not beat yourself up for what your emotions should be. Sounds like you’ve found peace as well.

    Like

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