I hadn’t expected to find myself in a cemetary that afternoon. I had expected even less to meet the guineafowl, caught in what appeared to be a snare, making pleading noises as it tried to free itself, succeeding only in breaking more feathers and falling down. The situation was at once ironic, sad and reaffirming.
This was the first weekend in a while that I had had nothing particular to do (well, a lot to do, but nothing due in the immediate future) and feeling that restlessness that only being tethered in suburbia can produce, I went walkabout. Strictly speaking, it was a driveabout – looking for interesting sights in areas I don’t normally travel through, to take some photos and explore what was just around the corner. Stumbling upon a large cemetary, I entered and the story mostly took shape from there.
Wandering through a cemetary is something I would encourage everyone to do at some point. It forces you to reflect on the transience of life, of how many people, unique and special, loved and believing have passed before you into oblivion. People like you. There are graves to those who gave their lives for what they believed – the soldiers, the policemen and others who placed their lives in the way of violence to protect what they believed in and, eventually, succumbed. There are also graves to every hue and stripe of person, from the towering mausoleums of the rich to the small, unmarked graves whose inhabitants’ identities will never be known.
Like a million lights burning and disappearing, we are, on our last day, nothing – absolutely nothing – more than what we have seen and learned
Many of the recent graves had flowers. But for the graves of the soldiers, few of the old ones bore any indication that they were remembered. Like Ozymandias, the impressive monuments to a lifetime of accrued wealth stand alone, unremembered by the world and cared for by nought but the groundskeepers. Like giant testaments to the impermanence of our dreams and our accumulated successes, they remind us that others too thought they would live forever. That they, like many of us, sought to build empires, to achieve, to last beyond their flesh. They didn’t live forever, and as we will be, were eventually forgotten.
Forgotten in that they will never be remembered as people. The narratives of their lives will fade into the dust and stone of those markers, line after line of them. But though their bodies pass on, they leave something else behind. Like a library of faded books, each stands to remind us that there were lives in those places. There were childhoods and first kisses, there was pain and joy, dreams and beliefs. Hundreds and hundreds of lives lived and ended, leaving nothing in the long spans of time but the headstones erected by those who loved them. The inescapable truth is that I will go there too. Not today. Not, I hope, for many years, but ultimately the story of my life must end with that same inescapable anonymity. Nothing I do is likely to survive in the memory of the world when I am gone.
Now most would find this a depressing thought. The idea that their lives, in the end, must fade away into these tombstones too. Yet I would disagree. What it teaches us, above all, is that ultimately, there are no consequences. There is goodness and evil, plenty and hunger, joy and pain in abundance for us to see in our lives, and every decision we make will take us somewhere, will change who we are as we go. But beyond that, over the centuries, what paths we walk will be irrelevant and what we accumulate will be lost. Whether you lived your life to its wildest, fantastical fullness, or sheltered in the security that conditioned existence provides, you will forfeit everything in the end. And if you knew that. If you really realised that you take nothing with you, then what reason can there be not to do the most. No to own the most. Not to accrue the most safety and stability, but to live the most. Feel the most. Stand screaming into the rain on the bloodied edge of the world you know.
Like a million lights burning and disappearing, we are, on our last day, nothing – absolutely nothing – more than what we have seen and learned, how much we have grown and become in the time we were alight.
and so the Guineafowl…
At this point, I had met the guineafowl, partly strangled by the snare it had wandered into. It was sad and ironc that in a place such as this, where we reflect on the uniqueness and irreplacibility of each life as it passes on, someone would set a trap to take another one. That I stumbled across and was able to rescue the bird owed much to little more than a remarkable coincidence. That on a weekend, in the far end of a largely quiet cemetary, the animal should be discovered by someone who would seek to untie it and take it for medical attention. That seems remarkable. Perhaps too much so.
And so, for one lucky little bird, life continues. So too for me and those of us who have not yet reached our dusty, unremembered rest. Many days remain for you to burn bright and to write the most of the stories of your lives. All there is – all there ever will be – is the brightness of your brief light against the endless, flickering glow of human life.