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:
HELLO I JUST HAVE A QUESTION HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF WATERFRONT I HAVE TWO DOCUMENTS ONE SAYS WATERFRONT THE OTHER TIPPERARY MAYBE WATERFRONT IS NEAR THERE I HOPE YOU CAN HELP ME OUT PLEASE AND THANK YOU
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.