Thursday, June 16, 2011

Death and Taxes

Recently I stayed in a small house near a cemetery.  The cemetery was huge, with a nice walking path encircling it, and so I walked around it.  I am fascinated by graveyards and will often stop to visit old ones when I am driving through communities that have them.  The old gravestones often have epitaphs which tell cryptic stories for which I fill in the details.  In this one, a husband’s tombstone listed his name, birth and death dates, then “Goodbye.”  The wife has a tombstone next to him, but she either isn’t buried there or isn’t dead yet (her birth year is 1915.)  Why “Goodbye” and not “Goodbye my love” or “Gone but not forgotten” or “Till we meet again” which can be found on several of the other tombstones?  Of course I fill in that this guy was a complete jerk, probably a cheater, perhaps abusive and everyone was happy to say “Goodbye, you *#*!”  

Another seems more poignant:   “Gone too soon.” But the person lived from 1905-2000.  Dying at 95 does not seem too soon in the sense I first read it.  I fill in the story:  the person died before her only living relative, a distant cousin, could get there and find out where she buried the silver or kept the key to the safe deposit box.  “You should have visited more often, you self absorbed creep” I admonish this made up deadbeat relative. 

Many of the gravestones had flags on them, probably placed there on Memorial Day.  Many of the men in this cemetery were veterans; most from World War I or II, but several from Viet Nam or Korea.  Most of the veterans had lived through the war and died as old men, but a few had been killed in action.  There are two very recent graves; these with tombstones that are flat on the ground to make mowing easier.  They have flags and their tombstones indicate that they were killed in Afghanistan. 

I fill in their story.  Because I am staying in an economically depressed area, with high unemployment I imagine these young men deciding to join the army, get an education, and see some parts of the world they have only read about.  Like many young people, they will not really believe that they can be killed or maimed:  that fate is for others.  Off they go, and back they come in a body bag. 

As I keep walking in the cemetery I think how different our world would be today if we had taken the route of reason after Sept 11, 2001.  For almost a week, or maybe more, every country in the world felt sorry for the USA.   Even countries traditionally critical of our imperialism and arrogance felt that the loss of innocent life was wrong.  Shortly after 9/11, the Taliban offered to capture Osama bin Laden and take him to The Hague, to be tried in World Court.  The United States squandered an opportunity of a lifetime when we turned them down and decided instead to attack Iraq based on a web of lies.  Proof that most of us have learned nothing from that experience could be seen in the chanting “USA, USA!” which followed the announcement of the assassination of bin Laden. 

A cemetery is a wonderful quasi commons.  Although the gravesites belong to individuals, and the maintenance is generally done through a private society, most cemeteries are open to the public and are quiet places for contemplation.  

Death and taxes are named as the two things no one can avoid. But must so much of our tax dollar pay for death?  Our military budget is larger than it has ever been in history, factoring in inflation.  I imagine someday someone generations from now walking through this cemetery and marveling at how many of the really old gravestones are of people who served in wars.   “Thank goodness that is behind us,” she will muse.   “What were they thinking in those days?” 

1 comment:

Christine Graham said...

Hi Kim, delighted to see your website, commons, and consulting work.... and just wanted to comment on those newer gravestones. Any one who has served in the military can get one of those flat, level on the ground, gravestones for free from the VA or the govt., so if you are poor or your family is, you can have your grave marked with just the military gravestone.... nice that it makes it easier to mow, but in fact it's a financial thing for most who only have that stone. Just wanted to add a little more sad reality to your powerful post. Christine Graham