Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Walking Past Cemetries

One of the things I always enjoy in small towns (in Costa Rica, as elsewhere) is the presence of small town cemeteries. Cities for some reason always max out the economies of scale, and you end up with entire suburbs of massive grandiose graves that nobody but the mourners ever walk into, and few people walk past. But in small old towns, people tended to be buried near where they died. The cemeteries you see tend to be more modest, but more everyday. They're as likely to be in the middle of town, and you pass them by on any given day.

I think that there is a definite value in having people being exposed in a common, everyday fashion to the resting place of their ancestors. Reflecting on mortality tends to make people less petty, and focus more on what's important. Steve Jobs said as much. Mozart said that he thought about death every day, and it helped him write music.

But the average person in modern society is enormously insulated from death. A lot of adults have never seen a corpse. Two centuries ago, this would have been unthinkable - death was just part of the landscape. And if you think that a close-up acquaintance with a corpse is too grisly, graves represent a civilised middle ground - one can contemplate mortality at a more abstract level, and reflect on how one ought to live a life.
Let pride be taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turn'd to that dirt from whence he sprung.
-Jonathan Swift

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