Speaker for the Dead

Just as I was starting to get a little bit bored reading about the politics and financial woes of Oak Hill Cemetery, the author reeled me back in with with this troubling, yet instructive quote from board president George Hill:

“I am absolutely sure that Oak Hill, its board, and its patrons are not ready for ghost tours and dog-walking,” he says. “It’s just not who we are.”

For all the parties that Hill manages to somehow speak for, he also seems to have omitted one entirely… Ah, right, the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery. They should probably get some say in the future of their home, if you ask me – it is their resting place, after all. And if Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is any indication, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to get their opinion, once we find a suitable intermediary.

In all seriousness, though, Hill’s failure (or refusal?) to account for those buried at Oak Hill and how they might have weighed in on ‘what’s best for Oak Hill’ did get under my skin a bit. Sure, we can only talk in “might haves” and “may haves” about the wishes of the dead, and in this we’ve talked a good deal in class on the dangers and pitfalls this sort of speculation.

However, this article encouraged me to reflect on what we may gain from this exercise. As Hannah Grace writes, physical artifacts “risk being forgotten unless something or someone new comes along” to spark interest and reinvigorate the discussion – it takes considerable effort to keep the dead ‘alive’, so to speak. So, for all the flaws and limitations of wondering what the dead “might have wanted”, I think the fact that we even attempt this is hugely significant. It signals our dedication to consider and honor these wishes, as well as our refusal to let death extinguish entirely an individual’s voice. It is at once an effort to converse with the dead, and to keep them in the conversation. There’s something beautiful in that.

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