It may seem like an odd choice but, to me, it’s the perfect choice. I love walking in Old Gray Cemetery, especially in the Spring. The dogwoods are among some of the prettiest around. Other flowers offer surprising splashes of color in and around the stones. It is paradoxically bursting with life.
Other times of year are good, as well. My second favorite is the fall, with the mature trees offering an autumnal bouquet of oranges, reds and yellows. The melancholy of autumn may best suit the setting. Summer offers a cool drop in temperatures from the heat of the surrounding roads and direct sunlight. Beneath the shade, it is possible to take a cooler walk when the heat becomes oppressive outside the range of the old trees.
The space also has an elegance, an aura of elevated purpose. The blend of references to classical mythology and Christian themes in the gently decaying sculptures and myriad, sometimes mysterious, symbols draws my mind away from the everyday world outside its borders. I sometimes stare into the inscrutable and often decaying faces of the statues straining to see what it was the artist or the loved one intended me to see.
Of course, these are not normal times and this is no normal spring. With the pandemic-induced social distancing, what better place to isolate from anyone who might spread the disease? At the closest point, the people here are, by definition of the location, six feet away. There’s little chance they’ll breathe virus particles in my path.
The only living humans I encountered on my resent walk were less than a half-dozen homeless people wandering around or sitting among the stones with vacant stares, as I passed. No one spoke or attempted to communicate. We all inhabited our insular worlds. There were no issues with social distancing nor interest in breaking that new but omnipresent boundary.
There are famous names on many of the stones, names we all know well if we’ve paid any attention to Knoxville history or to the names of places around us. They claim some of the most magnificent monuments. Other grand structures have names etched in them that I’ve never heard. Large statements of wealth or devotion or importance or perhaps all three, are undermined by the shortness of human memory and the inevitable decay of the elements.
It also might seem odd to choose to take a walk in a place of death during a pandemic that has claimed over 200,000 people in the world and over 50,000 in the United States in a matter of about twelve weeks. I didn’t really consider that before taking my walk, but as I wandered through the stones, taking photographs and reading inscriptions, my thoughts did turn in the direction of the deaths represented there and the deaths we’ve been tracking daily on computer screens.
I realized that, despite the death surrounding me there, the death I’ve experienced recently in my personal life, and the death seeming to scream at us every day from our electronic screens, I didn’t find the setting depressing. Oddly, I felt comforted. Looking at the small graves of children, the monuments to many who died young and those who lived to an advanced age, the idea of death didn’t seem so big.
They lived and they died. The world continued. It will continue one day without me. In that setting, the idea didn’t seem frightening as much as it simply felt comfortable and right. It’s a cliche, but it’s common because it is true. Tragedies happen, people die, but the world will continue. I’m at peace with that.
Maybe it strikes you differently, perhaps as a bit morbid. I’d encourage you to consider a walk through Old Gray. Maybe you’ll feel the same comfort I felt, or maybe you’ll simply enjoy the coolness, the history, or the elegant decay. At the least you may feel assured that six feet of social distance will be maintained at all times.
This week I’m purchasing a $25 gift card to Bliss/Tori Mason and another a pristine, clear vinyl LP copy of R.B. Morris’ latest album “Going Back to the Sky. It’s the first time R.B. has had a record pressed on vinyl and there are only 200 copies. It also comes with a digital download card. To enter send an email to KnoxvilleUrbanGuy@gmail.com with the subject header “Bliss/Tori Mason Gift Card Giveaway” or “R.B. Morris Album Giveaway,” depending on which you want to enter.
Same rules as before: “like” Knoxville Page on Facebook to help us help local businesses and donate at least $10 to something supporting COVID efforts or to someone impacted by the pandemic. Confirm in the email that you’ve done both and tell me how much and to whom you donated. Each entry requires its own donation. If you cannot donate at this time, enter anyway and just say so. It’s all good. The contest runs until midnight Friday night.