The next installment from Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape With Figures:
“Spent a contented hour or so idling about in the old burial ground over by the cove. There is not much pleasure in wandering around in modern cemeteries in spite of the growing, commendable trend to make them look like parks; one can’t help noticing the raw grave newly dug and waiting for its occupant, or last week’s wilted flowers testifying to someone’s living grief. An Old New England graveyard, on the other hand, that hasn’t seen a burial since before the turn of the century whose timeworn markers are tilted and half sunk in the earth, their epitaphs partially obliterated by weathering or lichens, has both tranquility and charm.
For one thing, it seems like such a sheltering, homelike spot, small enough for all the people laid to rest there to have been related or to have known one another in life and, one would like to imagine, in after-life. And for another, death has been gentled by time. There is none of the revulsion one feels in a present-day cemetery at the thought of recent corpses all bedecked and be-coiffed and made up to look “natural,” lying under the ground beneath one’s feet. The bodies lying here in their simple pine coffins have long since mouldered away and mingled with the earth. That fact takes a little of the shock and violence out of death in a time when so many deaths are shocking and violent. One almost feels that just as these long-vanished predecessors led the way across the sea to settle in a strange land, they have again moved on ahead of us to another unknown dwelling place and will be waiting to greet us on arrival.
I don’t often fall into this kind of sentimental thinking but I indulged myself today. For instance, I’ve always been a little scornful of people who wanted to be buried where they were born. If they believed in the immortal soul, and most of them I’ve known claimed they did, then it made no sense to put so much emphasis on the body. This afternoon, however, as I was trying to make out the names and dates on some of the headstones, the phrase “gathered unto his fathers” slipped into my mind and I understood the desire to be brought home where one felt rooted and grounded, so to speak, where one “belonged.” None of the people in that old graveyard were ancestors of mine, as far as I know, but I felt them to be my forebears in a sense because we had been bred in the same land. I actually found myself wishing I could be buried there (and all but looked around for a plot with a view).
In self defense I don’t think what I felt was sentimentality alone. It was also the longing we probably harbor to be part of the chain of life, linked to the generations that have gone before and by implication to the generations that will come after. It’s continuity we’re looking for. We want to feel we are part of the stream of life. So it’s not so odd, really, that one should get a sense of ongoing life in an old graveyard.
Anyway, in this pleasantly pensive mood I turned down a path and came unexpectedly upon a young girl sitting on the ground and leaning against a tree which shaded the paperback book pressed against her hunched-up knees. She was wearing a red and white striped jersey and blue jeans that had been cut off short. She was so absorbed in her book that she had not heard my approach and she jerked up her head, startled, when I appeared. The blond straight hair swung back from her cheeks revealing a young face. She was about thirteen, I guessed – pretty, but flushed and embarrassed. She made an impulsive movement to cover the title at the top of the page but my eye had already caught it: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
I smiled at her, said “hi” casually and went on. She did not recover herself enough to respond with a faint “hi” in return until I had moved off several paces. She obviously, felt guilty about what she was reading because she was not reading it as good literature – she was too young to appreciate it as that – but as a “dirty book” and to find out what she could learn about sex that she hadn’t already found out. I well remember doing the same thing in my own youth, although was a year or so older and “wiser” and m copy had originally been smuggled in from Europe and had passed through so many hands before it reached mine that half of the pages had come loose. Clearly she had chosen a place to read it where she safe from parental interference – to paraphrase Marvell slightly: A graveyard’s such a fine and private place.
There was something about the situation that teased my mind. It ought, I felt, to seem inappropriate, this juxtaposition of sex and death – like swearing in church, for example. When I imagined reading it in a modern cemetery, it did seem not only inappropriate but distasteful, as if one were flaunting the pleasures of the flesh before those who no longer had flesh to enjoy them. It made the book seem pornographic instead of the honest, deeply felt, if sometimes awkwardly written book most critical readers consider it to be.
the little shock I felt when I came upon the girl and the book in that ancient burial ground was obviously not one of moral indignation but a pleasant little shock of tender amusement. I was convinced that if any of the spirits of these long-dead were aware of the youngster sitting there with her book, they would not feel it in any way a desecration. They may have looked upon sex as a sin when they walked the earth, but I imagined them now in the wisdom of their years and souls, seeing both sex and death as part of the cycle of life, each in its season. They would look upon the young girl, just awakening to adult life, with sympathy and tenderness, and perhaps a touch of nostalgia and possible a trace of envy.
And the girl herself, I wondered, when she has gone through many years of living, will she come back some day and wander around the scene of her youth, indulging in a pleasantly rueful mood and puerile sentiments on life and death – even as I?”