I swore I’d never do it. I vowed I’d never live next door to a cemetery. I was a fervent believer in ghosts, although I never actually saw one. Even so, I thought that if I resided next to a graveyard I’d be in constant fear that I’d spot a spook or maybe a bunch of them…and they’d get me!
No way, no how would I spend most of my time next to a bunch of dead folks who could come and get me!
In 2001, my then-fiance and I rented a hovel owned by a wealthy landlord who charged an obscene amount of rent. The house contained mold all over the place, and it was truly decrepit. When the rainy season arrived, the small backyard’s inadequate drainage allowed a bona fide creek to run through the moldering garage.
After we gave our notice at Chez Mold, the rich landlady kept most of our deposit, even though we left the house in better condition than we found it. We were ecstatic to move on to a better place owned by a more responsible, ethical landlord.
A friend had informed us of a cute cabin for rent. It was located below the Chaminade, a gorgeous five-start resort that had previously been a monastery. We drove over to the property to take a look. As with many rentals in our town, the landlords lived on the same piece of property as their rental. The husband and wife seemed friendly enough, and the personal reference certainly helped us seal the deal. There was only one problem.
The studio was situated directly next to Oakwood Memorial, one of the largest cemeteries in the county.
As I looked around the beautiful landscape I decided to make an exception to my no-cemetery rule. The cabin had a peaceful view of trees, and in the cheery cabin there was no mold in sight, anywhere. I had been so unhappy at Chez Mold and I felt pretty desperate – I wanted to live in a relatively clean, bright and airy place with a reasonable rent. The cabin fit that bill. I told myself I’d try hard not to perseverate about our very, very quiet “neighbors”. Craig assured me it would be fine – he never was creeped out by cemeteries, the lucky guy.
We moved in and I started to relax about my cemetery credo more than I had expected I would. It helped that cemetery grounds were truly lovely, with lots of green grass and old trees scattered throughout the property. An avid reader of our local news, I read articles and obituaries announcing when someone had passed away, and I’d take note if the person would be buried at “my” cemetery.
Over the next few days when I drove by the cemetery on my way to work, I’d notice a new headstone and a fresh patch of earth. I’d spot the multitude of flowers, decorations, balloons, and the mourners around that plot. Watching such a display often made me appreciate being alive more than ever before, but the new graves also gave me the shivers.
When I reviewed the obituaries of these people, their deaths felt more personal to me since they were literally so close to my home. The most disturbing and heartbreaking aspect of my proximity to Oakwood was when I knew a teenager or a child had died and would be buried there. Those displays had the most flowers, the most balloons, candy canes, pin wheels, and stuffed animals. But overall, what mattered most about those tragic deaths was that love permeated through those new graves’ decorations. Love erased the macabre element of those gravesites for me.
I finally overcame my fear of cemeteries when I started walking around Oakwood on a daily basis. I needed the exercise because I was sitting too much in my job as an administrative assistant. I strolled around Oakland in loops, noticing the historic headstones and reading the quaint dedications on them. Many of these markers had been there for over a hundred years, and some were impossible to read. I know this will sound a little New Age-y, but at first I was concerned I might pick up “negative energy” by being around so much death, both recent and of bygone times. Fortunately I didn’t sense anything disturbing once I meandered through the fields.
After our first daughter was born, Craig walked around Oakwood with her in the Baby Bjorn on his chest. I always found it poignant that such a new, little life wandered that landscape, blissfully unaware that she was around a lot of folks on the other side.
That cabin turned out to be a very symbolic place for me to live, apart from the “carpe diem” inspiration I derived from my cemetery walks. We also literally lived two blocks away from the hospital. I drove by the locked-down mental health unit every single day and would look at it, thankful that I had no reason to be there. During the time I lived next to Oakwood, a close friend of mine needed treatment at the mental health unit and he told me horror stories about the place. Little did I know that I would admit myself in there several years later when my postpartum bipolar disorder struck.
I think back to my cemetery days with a bittersweet smile. I don’t mean to make light of the enormous pain of the mourners and those who died. I think they all would appreciate my take on that final resting place that I first vilified, and then I found peaceful and beautiful. I lived by Oakwood before my bipolar diagnosis, when I was joyfully pregnant with my first baby, and when I was innocent of all the suffering that was to come. I am grateful that I faced my fears of cemeteries, for in facing my fear, I found beauty in unexpected places and deepened my awe of life and death in the process.