It’s almost universal, that feeling you get when you go to a cemetery for the first time in months or years; see all the weather-blasted stones and markers lined off in neat rows; the occasional mound of fresh dirt; a mourner or two with plastic flowers in hand, heads bowed, reflecting. It’s as if you’ve crossed some kind of barrier into a land of transition, where the gauzy shroud between worlds thins to transparency.
There’s the metaphysical wall separating life and death, of course, but also there seems to be an analogous barrier between the waking world and the subconscious that is apparent there. Often, cemetery visits lead to dreams. Some can be unpleasant and symbolic reminders of one’s mortality. Others can be almost pastoral reunions with those long or recently passed, a brief meet-and-greet in the grave garden, as my teenage son once called graveyards.
Don’t get me wrong — the deceased don’t need a geographic ground zero to make their presence felt.
I’ve long had dreams of the dead, most often of my father, Jerry Boyd Faulk. His life was short and unhappy. He died before the age of 50 after suffering for more than 30 years as a paranoid schizophrenic. Ultimately, he succumbed to cancer in 1992.
The world at our home revolved around him. His moods were mercurial, and as his brain’s dysfunction partially involved manufacturing uncontrollable fear, he turned to fear’s close cousin — anger — to protect himself. As a result, I spent the bulk of my earlier years petrified of that moment when dad would transform from loving lump on the couch to the screaming, violent, medicated monster we all knew slept fitfully beneath his addled surfaces.
When he passed, life for me transformed. It’s a hell of a thing to say, but it was one of the happier moments in my life when I realized he no longer had the power to rip my world apart.
Some cultures believe the dead never actually leave this world, that they carry on as aspects of the living, and that they must be remembered, honored even, or they’ll exert some existential pressure on the forces of the universe to make you suffer for that lack of respect.
If that’s true, it may well be in dreams that those pressures are realized.
I first encountered my father’s shade after I’d turned 30. One night I dreamt that he’d somehow survived the cancer, the burial, several years underground, and had scraped and clawed his way free. He’d stumbled through the streets to a house that somehow in the way of dreams came equipped with a new life, roommates, biker parties, girlfriends and guitars. He took up residence there and began his life as a perfectly sane if wild man about town.
It was about this same time that I began to struggle with addiction, and the dreams recurred with regularity. The more I grew into an addict and ultimately a monster of sorts myself, the more he became sane and domesticated in my dreams. We slowly, over the course of years, switched places. I became the wildly selfish, dangerous threat to the family, while he became the friend of all my friends, charmed the world with his sense of humor, and hosted grand parties at his home.
It was in this way that I ultimately found peace with the old man. After I’d come clean, there were all the realizations about who and what I’d become in my addiction, and a glaring parallel emerged between my life and that of the father who I’d grew up loathing. In a way, I’d become him. This slow metamorphoses had been chronicled for me in dreams, though until recently I’d never made the connection.
Working at the cemetery, it hasn’t taken long for the place to infect my subconscious. Only, it wasn’t in the way I expected.
My first dream of the place was of a board member (our district is governed by a board of trustees) clambering into the office one evening, clothed in a muddy jumpsuit with what looked like a miner’s helmet in his head. In his hands he had bricks of cash covered with grave dirt, and he was damn excited.
“I found the rest of the money,” he proclaimed, thrusting the worm-ridden pile of bills at me. “Count this!”
As an office manager, I’m learning all the systems, encountering loads of new information, and trying to synthesize all this into a manner of administration. I make no effort here at interpretation, but I do have a lot to learn.
One of my coworkers, the resident sexton, told me of a dream that was obviously the creation of a mind used to digging graves.
He described the center section of Sunrise Cemetery, but different: In the center of the center, so to speak, a sink hole had opened up. It was as deep as a school bus is long, he told me, and poking haphazardly from the walls all around were the ragged, decayed ends of coffins and their plastic liners, urns of ashes, the various and aging lockers of the dead. He was charged with fixing the mess, with somehow stemming the flood of mud, wood and tissue that had begun a slow creep toward the enter of the earth.
In the dream, I don’t know how he fared. In reality, he’s an artist with a backhoe. It often takes subtle and precise movements of a massive steel maw to slip someone’s favorite sister into the crowded family plot where she belongs.
I’ve become a bit of a Luddite these recent years, but occasionally I do surf the web. A week or two ago, I landed on a site where a filmmaker had followed smack addicts in Europe through their normal routines, and then interviewed them about what remained of their emotional and family lives. About their dreams, memories, favorite colors — the kind of thing some people assume they’ve forgotten or abandoned.
One woman, old and battered by her disease, described a dream where she wandered through a cemetery she knew from childhood. She knew that her father’s grave was out there somewhere among the crooked markers, but it was just beyond her reach. The harder she looked, the more it faded away.
It haunted her, she said.
James Faulk is a writer, family man, and cemetery worker. You can reach him at email@example.com