Paula Schulz. Tarantino fans will recognize the name. Who is she…or rather who isn’t she? Paula Schulz is the name of the grave in which Uma Thurman, aka “The Bride” in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, was to have died after being buried alive in a cemetery (supposedly outside Barstow, California). That was the plan, but the entomber (played by one of my all-time favorite character actors and QT regular Michael Madsen) underestimated her martial arts training. To see how she escapes from a wooden coffin six feet under, you’ll have to watch the movie. Not for the faint-hearted.
Cemeteries and movies are a natural pairing. Where would any of these been without their cemetery scenes? The Godfather, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (final 3-way gunfight!), Easy Rider, Rocky, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Saving Private Ryan, countless horror/slasher/vampire flicks, and—of course—Pet Sematary.
Cemeteries to me are what art galleries, bars and bird-watching trails are to others. I’m drawn to them, have been since I can remember. I’ve spent hours in cemeteries in every continent, save Antartica (not known for its graveyards). Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu. Large, small. Horizontal and vertical (as in, cliff faces). Kempt and unkempt. (Louisa and I had a favorite outside Pescadero that we would visit on our cycle excursions from Palo Alto—it was as wild and wooly as they came, until someone decided the dear departed deserved tidiness, and cut down every last scrap of vegetation.) We can’t pass a graveyard without stopping, wandering through rows of stones beset by crosses and crescent moons and Stars of David. We read the names, dates, homilies. Stare at the photographs (a common feature on gravestones in many countries). I to imagine myself dead, wanting to give some urgency and tang to my life.
Walking into a cemetery, the thought usually comes, “There are just so many dead people!” Have you heard the one about there being more people now alive than have ever died? Don’t believe it. The Population Reference Bureau, which keeps tabs on present-day populations and does its best to estimate past populations, reckons that about 107 billion people have ever lived. Meaning that there are (were?) about 15 dead people for everyone now living.
I’ll include some photos here, including: For poignancy, the cemetery in Vietnam close to the 17th parallel, the dividing line between the old North and South Vietnam, where the victims of this country’s futile attempts to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail are memorialized by over ten thousand stones laid out in five huge petals, as a flower. For remoteness, check the monks’ tiny graveyard on Skellig Michael, the rocky island ten miles off the coast of Ireland which recently did duty as Ahch-To (whence Luke Skywalker had holed up in the most recent pair of Star Wars movies). For endurance, here are 2500-year-old stone sarcophagi along the “Lycian Way” in southwest Turkey. For economy, the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where bodies have been lain one on top of one another for centuries due to space limitations, and even then the stones are practically touching. And for sheer exuberance, Mexican cemeteries, some with little houses (complete with electric light), others with birthday balloons, ribbons and fresh cut flowers testifying to the belief that the dead are still around, to be honored and celebrated even more than when they lived. Especially, of course, on Day of the Dead.
I’ll never end up in a cemetery—I’m signed up with Gunther von Hagens’ Institute of Plastination; if all goes well, my flensed and artificially colored body (or some parts thereof) will help inform future medical students. Until then, the cemeteries of the world are on my bucket list, the places where, ironically, I feel most alive.