Sunday, October 12, 2008

In a Grave State of Mind

While we're on the topic of decidedly depressing thoughts, like retirement, let's talk about death. Yes, it's all fun, fun, fun here at For the Long Run.

Earlier this year, I signed up as a volunteer for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK). As the name suggests, RAOGK volunteers help people out with genealogical research. I found out about them from a radio interview with the author A.M. Holmes and thought it sounded interesting. One of the volunteer areas is going to cemeteries to take pictures of tombstones. Since I'm not particularly interested in the X begat Y family tree aspect of genealogy, I thought that being a cemetery volunteer would be a better option for me.

I pictured this as a way to help someone out whilst exploring Counties Cork and Kerry. In my imagination, requesters would provide accurate and precise locations for their ancestors and then I'd zip out to take the photographs. In reality, this hardly ever happens. 85% of the requests I've gotten have been for assistance obtaining parish records or other genealogical research, which isn't my thing. 5% of the requests have been bizarre, off-the-wall, or indecipherable questions.

My favourite in the bizarre category was from a guy who wrote:


I don't know why he was shouting at me and I don't know what he was talking about. My response was a puzzled (and I hope polite) "Sorry, I don't know of waterfront, though I'd be surprised if it were in Tipperary seeing as how the county is landlocked. Could you possibly mean Waterford, which is both a county and a city. County Waterford borders County Tipperary. Perhaps a Google search could help you?"

Only 10% of the requests I've gotten have been for cemetery visits and of those, only one person had the exact row location for the relative. It's been quite an adventure showing up at these small, poorly maintained, ancient cemeteries and stumbling through them, hoping to find a particular tombstone from 1829.

It's also made me think about things I've never thought about before. It's quite unnerving to see these poorly maintained gravesites, especially since the Irish tend to be quite reverential about their dead. One of the Christmas traditions here is to go to the graves of your relatives. When you walk through an Irish cemetery, the newer graves are always meticulously kept. I've even found some that were landscaped more nicely than our house in Wheaton.

To wander around and see graves from the turn of the century that are poorly maintained isn't particularly surprising. But it is odd and peculiarly distressing to see a recent grave in poor repair. It bespeaks a person who is alone in death and may also have been alone in life.

And all of this gets me thinking about what would happen to me if I died tomorrow. About how I'd have nothing to show for the last 35 years. No remarkable accomplishments. No great achievements. No children. Nothing.

I can push these thoughts out of my mind pretty easily. I'm relatively young, fit, healthy, and have excellent genes. My Nana Anna lived to be 90 and a half, after all. Unless I become 'carnage on the roads,' My goal is to live to at least 100. I still have time to make my mark on the world, to leave behind some passably entertaining books or something of lasting value.

But outliving everyone has its own sadness. What happens if you're the last one standing? If you've no children to bury you? If you've no friends to come to your funeral? I want to be cremated, but what happens if there's no one left to pick up my ashes?

Thoughts like this freak me out. Thoughts like this are the reason I will shortly be resigning my post as a RAOGK volunteer. I thought that this lark would be a great way to find interesting places in the surrounding countryside. I never expected to get a window into my own thoughts and fears about death.


At 12 October 2008 at 15:19, Blogger Babaloo said...

Oh wow, what a "fun" topic for a grey Sunday afternoon.

I've had similar thoughts as you, I'm the same age, no children (and none on the cards either) and nothing to show for myself as you put it. But I figure that I don't care who buries me. Or who picks up my ashes. I'll be dead, won't I?!

I don't mean this to sound flippant either, I'm serious.

What I'm more worried about is what happens before I go. That I'd be on my own and lonely. This is the thoughts I don't want to be thinking...

At 12 October 2008 at 16:11, Blogger Irene said...

That doesn't really sound like a good reason to quit, It sounds more like you lost interest and think of all the people you were helping complete their family trees. There is great joy in finding the missing family member, I know I did my family tree on both sides.

Who cares what happens to your ashes once you are gone. Have them spread on a pretty field or out at sea. It's what you do with your life that counts. Leave an impression by being especially helpful to some group of people that needs help from someone with your expertise. You can always make a difference. You have about 60 years left to do it.

At 12 October 2008 at 18:29, Blogger laurie said...

well, i can see why you would come to those conclusions, but they're all the wrong conclusions, ann.

if you were to become carnage on the road tomorrow, you would leave behind all the work you have done, for good and for bad; you would leave grieving family; and a world wide web of deeply grieving friends.

you would leave behind the wonderful work you haev done with your dogs, the great writing you have done on your blog and elsewhere, the work you have done alongside peter in his profession.

we tend to think too much that we must leave behind something physical: a child, a book, a piece of music.

but that's not the case. good works are just as important, and good friends are just as crucial.

you will not be carnage on the road tomorrow. you will live to be a happy, healthy, camogie-playing 100. you have a lot to show already for your life. and you will have a lot more to show when the time comes.

go leash up the pup and run around the house until the color comes back to your cheeks and you are laughing. you need to laugh.

At 12 October 2008 at 19:31, Blogger Babaloo said...

I'd like to sign my name under what Laurie has just said. She's right. There's nothing to add. :-)

At 13 October 2008 at 02:30, Blogger Career Guy said...

Au contraire little one.
Here is a sampling of what you would leave behind:
Memories of:
- this tiny blue eyed bundle on the day you wee born
- a spritely blond bumble bee
- a little girl clinging gamely to the side of her horse, refusing to fall under those sharp hooves
- the resolute child determined to get to school despite falling on the icy sidewalks about a hundred times
- the gutsy girl who chose a musical instrument bigger than she was
- the high schooler who put up with the sexist guff in a formerly all boys school and succeeded in spite of it all
- the college kid who raced through her degree in three years and wondered why she had been in such a all fired hurry
- the shy young woman who took on the challenges of the world in her own quiet competent way
- the sports nut who would "watch" baseball games with me over the phone, as we were separated by 350 miles
- my own personal technical advisor
- the trickster who sat on her secret marriage for so many years
- the most tuned in travel guide who planned the best trip ever
- The best daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, and yes—wife—that any father, brother, niece, nephew, cousin and yes—husband—could ever hope for.

But then I'm just your father whose heart leaps when you're happy and aches when you're not.

Be well, sweetie.

At 13 October 2008 at 13:09, Blogger Faith said...

I came to you through black box. It's natural to think of death, but you are very young still so I agree with you get out of the cemetaries and this way of thinking and get on with your life, Best wishes.

At 13 October 2008 at 17:24, Blogger -Ann said...

Babaloo - You're right, maybe I should blame the weather for my semi-melancholy mood.

Irene - Thanks - 60 years sounds like a good long time, doesn't it?

Laurie - Thank you. You're right about the work - I've never thought about it like that. And I certainly hope I can play camogie at 100. That would be a tremendous accomplishment. :)

Babaloo - Laurie's very eloquent, isn't she? I've heard she does a bit of writing on the side.

Dad - OK, you totally made me cry.

Faith - Thanks for stopping by. I hope you stop in again. I'm usually not morose.

At 13 October 2008 at 21:48, Anonymous Harlequin said...

Yeah, and your dad totally made me cry too. :-) I also cried earlier when I saw my baby nephew (who moved to London with his parents six weeks ago) is now walking all by himself. *sniff* It's been an emotional day!

At 16 October 2008 at 17:27, Blogger -Ann said...

Harlquin - Oh no. Sorry to add to the tears. My nephews both live in the States and while it's great to see them, it's sad to see how much of their lives that you miss.

At 18 October 2008 at 15:54, Anonymous Harlequin said...

Ah no, it's grand. I like that kind of crying. It's like crying over a black and white film on a Sunday afternoon. :-) I wish my nephew lived closer but right now it's only London so at least I can *technically* jump on a plane any time I want and see him! If they move to Canada or Australia, that'll be much harder. Ah well!


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