Tree Talk Finding Sanctuary in Cemeteries, the Forests of the Dead
Even before death takes a loved one, marking us with deep knowledge, we partake of death every day.
Like my mother before me, I’m a cemetery walker. In the Lone Fir Cemetery of Portland, Oregon, which also doubles as Portland’s second largest arboretum, volunteers give Saturday tours and annual Halloween performances that are really local history lessons in spooky disguise. On these tours, you can learn how bodies from Portland’s original, marshy cemeteries were moved to this higher ground. You’ll visit the cemetery’s treeless southwest corner, which is filled with the unmarked graves of early Chinese immigrants and patients of a nearby asylum which no longer exists. If you wander through Lone Fir, you’ll find headstones in the shape of stumps marking the graves of the men who lived by logging, back when Portland was founded on the back of an industry that felled trees to build a city. The bigleaf maples, famous for their unrestrained growth, live at the north end of the cemetery. Here, their trunks have expanded to engulf the headstones they once guarded, devouring them, inch by inch, in widening bark. Underneath, it is easy to imagine their roots growing through the old coffins.
This is the dream of many, this death spent in the roots of a tree. If you search the internet, you can find eco burials that are a manifestation of our attempts to become more eco-conscious in the face of environmental crisis, but that also grow from our ancient associations of death with trees. You can now inter ashes in burial pods made to decompose and feed a tree planted with your remains. You get to choose the species. You could be buried in a graveyard forest, with only a tree (and precise GPS coordinates) as your marker. I imagine a future in which our cemeteries become forests of the dead, human bodies turned tree, families wrapping arms around bark in remembrance of a loved one, people tending trees with an attention that crosses the distance of species.
It is trees that often bring me the strongest memories of my mom. Every year, right around her birthday, when the maples release their seeds, I think of her. It’s my mom who taught me that, inside each seed, if you catch it at just the right moment, held between earth and sky, a wish can grow.
In the UK and some parts of Europe, it’s the churchyard yew that stands guard over old cemeteries. According to Thomas W. Laqueur , the churchyard yew was thought to absorb the poisonous vapors released by the dead, the tree’s roots digging down through the bodies to soak up the poisons there as well. Most parts of the yew are poisonous to humans. The seeds of yew berries should not be eaten.
To eat of death, legend tells us, is to bring death into oneself. Persephone ate the fruit of the dead from the pomegranate tree and was trapped there, a part of herself always caught in the underworld even when she was returned to life each spring. But aren’t we always, by our very living natures, eating of death? Even before death takes a loved one, marking us with deep knowledge, we partake of death every day.
When I was very young, my favorite food was a tuna melt my mom would make. Once, while eating my sandwich, I told her what I loved most about it was that it wasn’t made of animals. I still remember the pause, that look on my mom’s face before she told me the hard truth: Tuna was a fish. We had pet fish. This was even worse, I thought, than the cows I had only ever seen at a distance and had recently learned were killed for my hamburgers. I cried and she comforted me and told me I didn’t have to eat it if I didn’t want to. I still ate the tuna then and for years after. It was only as a teenager that I became a vegetarian, only as an adult that I went vegan. Animal farming is the second largest source of our carbon emissions. Forgoing animal products (or even eating significantly less of them) is one of the greater contributions an individual can make to fight climate change. But even vegan’s lives are sustained by death. The death of plants is still a death. And our modern food production is full of unrelenting death: chemicals made to kill insects and fungi, forests cleared of whole ecosystems for farming, species endangered because of it. Even when we try to distance ourselves from the slaughter of animals, from the species displacement of agriculture, even from the preparation of our own human bodies for burial, death is never really very far from our lives. In our age, as we hurtle ourselves toward an unlivable future, as we begin to experience mass extinctions through the decimation of delicate populations, like insects , isn’t death always on our minds?
My first memory of human death was my grandpa’s. I was three and my mom was about to give birth to my brother. I remember we sat at the dinner table but I do not remember what we were eating. I didn’t really grasp the concept of death beyond the sense that it meant being separated from one’s family. I didn’t understand where a person would go if they didn’t live with their family. My mom tried to explain that the dead go to cemeteries, beautiful places with trees and grass and flowers, a kind of interspecies sanctuary, not scary at all. We could visit whenever we wanted. Of course, I asked the question that I imagine all parents must dread; I asked my mom if I would die. I saw her hesitate. She glanced at my dad. I understand this hesitation now, the hard question of it. Do you give your child the fruit of the knowledge of death, of the closeness to dying, or do you preserve the innocence woven from not knowing? My mom gave me the gentlest look as she told me that, yes, I would die, we all would, but not for a very long time. That night, in my child’s mind, for the first time, I imagined myself dead. My family came to visit me in the cemetery where I lived. When they were not there I missed them and felt lonely in my grave, ever amongst all the trees.
As an adult, my perception of death has grown larger, has moved further beyond my own sense of self. Now I notice the trees that die every summer in drought. I see the orchards turned arboreal graveyard and know the cause and feel the human guilt of it. And feel the human separateness.
In the Irish story of Deirdre and Naoise , two lovers are kept apart, even in dying, until two yew trees grow over their graves. The yew’s branches reach across great distances until they find each other, their branches entwining. Through the trees, the lovers are finally able to join each other in death. For me, this story has always reflected something fundamental about the human dream of death: the notion that death might connect us, might bring us closer, to each other, to nature, to God, to life itself. We dream that, in death, our individual boundaries might just fall away. We wish for a final, unfettered union with our world.