Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Geography of Death

When I notice a bouquet of flowers along the road, I feel a moment of sadness because I know that someone died here. Someone’s spirit left their body here, and the people who knew and loved them are grieving their loss. If I’m not late to be somewhere, I try to figure out the cause of the accident — sharp curve, bad weather conditions, hit by a drunk driver — and then I check to see if any of these apply to me because I don’t want to die here.

Yet someone did. Someone was lying on the ground here, looked around at the grass, at the empty beer bottles and candy wrappers, up into the sky, and knew, in all probability, that they were going to die here and this would be the last image they would see. If they were not at peace, do their spirits linger in this place?

I’ve thought about the geography of death before. It makes a difference to me if I know that someone died on this spot.

When I hike in Yosemite, I often stay with the rock climbers in Camp 4. Every day as I watch them head off, I know there is a chance that one of them might not be coming back. I’ve read enough accounts of climbers falling off El Capitan and dying, hikers slipping off the side of Half Dome and dying, and hikers wading into the river above 300-foot-tall Vernal Fall, being swept over and dying, to know that in this valley of sublime and audacious beauty, the places of death are all around me.

Some of the early settlers are buried in the valley’s Pioneer Cemetery. A number of their headstones note the cause and location of their deaths. Apparently falling horses were a big problem. Native Americans lived in the valley for thousands of years, and their remains must be buried everywhere.

People travel to battlefields like Gettysburg, Normandy, and Wounded Knee to be where people died and honor them. We also go to cemeteries where the bodies of our loved ones rest to remember and pay our respects.

Which place is more sacred? Where someone’s spirit left their body, or where their remains are buried?

Road tributes remind me to pay attention to life in the present tense.

Well, that’s where my ruminations have taken me today, mulling a bunch of questions that only create more. All because I saw a bouquet of flowers, and remembered that death often comes when we’re looking somewhere else.


  1. I like how you think my friend. In my world, it's all sacred. "More sacred" is just a notion I don't understand just yet.
    It's like believing my families plot is more important than those that surround it. It may be to me, but not to the family next to ours, etc.
    I just wrote a small piece on "ghost bikes" earlier in the week with a similar premise.
    Blessings on you and your work.

    1. Thank you, Mark. All the earth is scared, and all its creatures. Everything holds a spark of divinity.

  2. I needed to take my car to the repair shop, so instead of inconveniencing my husband's schedule to drive me there(though he would have done so gladly) I decided to just get some exercise and walk home. I walked past a roadside memorial and stopped in front of it and thought wow, someone left the world here. I lingered a minute or two, a sort of paying my respects in a way, and walked on. Less than a month later my husband had his own roadside memorial, a ghost bike, from being killed by a negligent driver. It will be six years in August. I still live a couple of miles from the site, but it was a road that leads up to a gated community so I have no reason to go past it unintentionally. Many people who have asked how my husband died remember it happening when I tell them. I have been told by a few strangers that they think of him when they go past there. People I did not know left things there at the time which was nice. I don't go there often, I do go to the cemetery. I think he visits us, and I live in the same home so I am constantly reminded of when he was still here. It took a long time, but I try to make our focus his life, and not how he died. Maybe the cemetery is for those close to the person, and where they left the world is for the rest of the us. I do believe those memorials are important, and make us more aware of others as we go about our days, especially driving.

    1. I like what you say, Jill, that cemeteries are for those close to the person, while where they left is for the rest of us. These memorials are important, and remind us that we are part of a community and we need to out for each other.