Sunday, August 05, 2007

Two Gravesite Visits

Note: This post contains details about "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." It does not give away the ending, because I'm not there yet.

It would be difficult to imagine two books more different than "Shot In the Heart," Mikal Gilmore's account of how his family's history contributed to the development of Gary Gilmore, and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." One thing - perhaps the only thing - they have in common is a gravesite visit, which in "Deathly Hallows" is, at least so far, the most effective and moving section of the book.

In "Deathly Hallows," Harry is visiting the gravesite of his parents, James and Lily, for the first time. He is joined by his friend Hermione, who has just explained a potential meaning for the epitaph on his parents' tombstone: The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

"It beyond death. Living after death."

But they were not living, thought Harry: They were gone. The empty words could not disguise the fact that his parents' moldering remains lay beneath snow and stone, indifferent, unknowing. And tears came before he could stop them, boiling hot then instantly freezing on his face, and what was the point in wiping them off or pretending? He let them fall, his lips pressed hard together, looking down at the thick snow hiding from his eyes the place where the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them.

Hermione had taken his hand again and was gripping it tightly. He could not look at her, but returned the pressure, now taking deep, sharp gulps of the night air, trying to steady himself, trying to regain control. He should have brought something to give them, and he had not thought of it, and every plant in the graveyard was leafless and frozen. But Hermione raised her wand, moved it in a circle through the air, and a wreath of Christmas roses blossomed before them. Harry caught it and laid it on his parents' grave.

As soon as he stood up he wanted to leave: He did not think he could stand another moment there. He put his arm around Hermione's shoulders, and she put hers around his waist, and they turned in silence and walked away through the snow, past Dumbledore's mother and sister, back toward the dark church and the out-of-sight kissing gate.

It's a wonderful passage, the best in the book so far, although I've got more than 400 pages to go.

In Gilmore's book, it is the grave of his uncle that is visited, an uncle who died at age 3, and whose death impacted the family in a way that was ultimately devastating and tragic.

Not long ago, I visited the Wyuka Cemetery, just outside Lincoln, where my father's older brother, Clarence, was buried at age three. Wyuka is one of Nebraska's oldest large cemeteries; it has been receiving the dead and their mourners for over a century. It is laid out like a mosaic. Narrow driveways wind around a vast patchwork of lots and gardens, each of them an island of graves. Clarence's grave lay on the far side of the cemetery, in one of the oldest sections. I parked my car near that section on a winter morning. It was bitterly cold - there was a blizzard watch on the news that morning - and a haze hung over the ground that made it hard to read the markings on the old, timeworn tombstones. I searched for some time before I found it: a small, isolated plot lying next to an empty patch of ground, surrounded by the grave colonies of full families. On a stone lying flat on the earth was all that was left of the Lanctons' history in Nebraska, and of my father's first family. The stone read: OUR BABY.

I stood there and looked at it for as long as I could take the cold...and thought: I am probably the only person who has ever visited this particular grave in the last hundred years. That idea was enough to fill me with such immediate despair, I got back in my car and drove away from the site as fast as the narrow roads would take me.

Though the circumstances could not be more different, the "Deathly Hallows" gravesite passage made me think of Mikal Gilmore's visit, on a similarly cold day, with a similar theme of despair and sadness.

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