At the risk of sounding weird and creepy, I’d like to share something with you: I love my local cemetery. It’s a place of mystery, magic and history. I go there several times a week and think it more special with each visit.
It was created by New York City landscape gardener Howard Daniels, who lived in the mid-19th century. The cemetery was built to be “a place of spiritual fulfillment for the living, as well as a resting place for the dead.” It certainly has been a place of spiritual fulfillment for me.
The grounds have slopes, hills, springs and valleys. There are a number of unusual plant species that people come to study. My husband said he knew he wanted to marry me when I correctly identified a Redwood Tree tucked in behind some Spruce trees.
One hundred and sixty-five acres wedged between a major highway and a university, it feels like a little world unto its own… like you’ve entered a Harry Potter-like kingdom. It’s one of my favorite places to meditate and quiet my mind.
To this day, I’ve seen deer, foxes, rabbits, woodchucks and, to the delight of my two Jack Russells, plenty of squirrels. The shorthand in my family is: “I’m going squirreling at the Cem.”
At dusk the light glows through the bare branches and thousands of crows alight upon them. At those times I feel as if I’m in an Alfred Hitchcock film. They carry on loudly and intensify the mystical feel with their chattering. It’s as if they are saying, “This is our place, and we see you.”
But as much as I love the urban critters, what I’m really looking for are the red-tailed hawks who make their homes here. I’ve walked the trails so many times that I know to look up as I’m walking. It’s not uncommon to see a large, brown-mottled raptor looking stoically down on me.
When they are feeding their young, you might see one flying with prey hanging from their talons. This lends a wildness to this unique enclave in the city. I’ll admit, it’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but it makes me feel very grateful that I have this special sanctuary minutes from my home.
In addition to critters and hawks, mosses of every variety live here. They cover the old headstones and blanket the fallen tree trunks. And every kind of lichen can be seen attaching itself to monuments and statues.
When the moss has a light covering of snow, the statues look enchanted. Every day the light and the scenery are different, so I’m never bored. And when the spring buds start popping, I feel so energized that I get a little euphoric.
I remember reading about a mindfulness exercise where a man returned to the same tiny patch of grass in Manhattan to see how it changed every day. It was an exercise in noticing, with full awareness. That’s the beauty of being at the cemetery. There’s so much to notice and appreciate.
The famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh was known for reminding people that life is temporary. Rumor has it that at one of his retreats, he began by stating that all of the participants would someday be dead. This was his way of helping people stay in the present moment.
It’s hard to forget that fact while I walk among the tombstones. Some inscriptions are impossible to read because of their age, but some are clear enough to see that I am already outliving the person. Somehow walking among the headstones brings even more intensity to an already powerful experience.
I’m looking for hawks (which are thought to be connected to the spiritual realm), and I’m being reminded that my life will one day end. As I walk up the steep hills, the dogs gleefully running beside me, that’s a lot to think about.
I recently interviewed Jools Barsky, the co-founder of The Death Café, on my podcast Zestful Aging. She explained that people really want a safe space to talk about death. It’s still a taboo subject.
Not everyone will understand why walking in the cemetery brings me such serenity, but I bet some of you will.
What’s your place of peace? Why does it make you feel that way? How did you find it? What do you experience while there? Please share in the comment box below.