Powdery, red Virginia clay gave way under my feet as I wandered between plots of land that had clearly not been dug deep enough.
I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of dying as much as I’m afraid of what remains. Dead things freak me out. So, as a woman who’s making her partner check the mouse traps before she gets out of bed in the morning, it’s really not in my nature to go wandering around cemeteries. Still, there I was hopping onto one foot because the soft ground seemed like it was going to swallow me up. Ridiculous.
I eyed a few threatening holes - positive I’d see a body if I looked too closely - before sitting down on a mossy patch of ground. Was I sitting on a dead person? Probably, but I convinced myself the civil war era headstone to my left was just a plain ol’ rock and read the new text on my phone.
Aaron: “How’s it going?”
Me: “I’m photographing family and child graves. So, you know, I’m clearly in a good head space today.”
Snapping a photo of the view before me, I sent it off to Aaron who responded with an, “Oh, goodness.” Classic.
Morbid? undoubtedly. But, I’m a little rusty, and I haven’t worked up the courage to ask any strangers to sit for me in a portrait. I mean, there are people in these… technically … right?
Smirking at Aaron’s predictable response, I stood up and moseyed over to some strange headstones a few yards away. To be honest, I think they were made from the dense glass tiles used in illuminated dance floors years ago. Mourners had placed trinkets inside the squares and set them in the dirt. I couldn’t see inside, but one of them had been turned sideways.
Kneeling to the ground and peering in, I found a cracked, faded Virgin Marry sitting inside. It was obvious she couldn’t see out either.
I’ve been thinking about family and particularly curious about the tensile strength and elasticity of the threads that hold them together. Passing between the plots of land, I started to wonder: Do the small, repetitive injuries over a lifetime and the massive falling-outs suddenly disappear at the graveside? Do the estranged meet only when one of them is under-foot? What keeps descendants placing flowers on the graves of their ancestors 30, 50 sometimes 100 years later? And what about the not yet dead? Why do some feel so strongly about extended family laying side-by-side in death that they will line up the blank stones next to each other with names but no dates?
I wonder these things because I’ve been testing and exploring the boundaries of my life up till now.
A few months ago, someone on a podcast said the the words, “Purity Culture.” A quick google search, and just like that the fabric of my worldview unraveled.
I grew up ensconced in the conservative, evangelical christian culture. Books like Passion and Purity, My Utmost for His Highest, Redeeming Love, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and countless devotionals filled my book shelves. I went on Missions Trips to third world countries and developing nations where I hugged babies, prayed for people, and did little plays meant to tell others the gospel. I led Bible studies, read the Bible daily, spoke at events, and, as a good-christian girl. I, “waited,” till marriage.
While the conservative Christian Church has precious little to say about sexual violence, they have more than enough to say about the virginity of young women. I can tell you, none of the promises that accompanied, “waiting,” or any other of the conditional Evangelical promises came true for me.
It’s not that it was all bad. It’s just that… I think I see it for what it is now, and I can’t hold on to that version of faith anymore. My perspective has fundamentally changed. While I feel more alive and spiritually grounded than I have felt in a long, long time, I spent the better part of the last three months panicking over it.
There are so many stories from this part of American culture in which people are losing their loved ones and communities because they leave the fold. While I think the, “fold,” is much wider than I originally believed, I know there are others who will count me out. I guess that’s how I ended up at the cemetery and the four that followed over the next six hours. Why not start at the end? If the worse comes true…. then what?
One particularly depressing plot featured matching heart-shaped tombstones. Talia Ina, had been laid to rest at the age of four. The other stone read Tatiana Talia with a birth date two months after the death of her sister. She’s seven now, and and there was no death recorded for Tatiana yet.
More photos from today: