The inspiration hit me while I was walking my way across Massachusetts in 2011. In towns where I could find no suitable open space (I had vowed to take a thirty minute nature walk in each of the 351 towns and cities within one calendar year), I "fell back" to cemeteries as my default open spaces. There was precedent for the notion. Particularly during the Romantic Era, cemeteries were designed just for that purpose, with rolling hills and sloping trails. For a long time in America, some cemeteries have been for the living as well as the dead.
So there I was in a Hebrew cemetery in central Massachusetts, not necessarily designed for walking, but it was the best I could manage in this particular town. I came across one grave marker that made me pause in my tracks: "1902-2000, An Untimely Demise," read the back. It might as well have had an exclamation mark after it. What a send off! It made me think of several things. First, did she have a say in what went onto her tombstone? If she did, she had a wonderful sense of humor. Or was it her kids? Or grandkids? Or her ancient husband, staring into the ground thinking "I'm next"? Whose idea was it?
Second, it was the brevity of it all that caught me. It was like the old torch song said: "Is that all there is?" When we go, we end up with name, dates and maybe - maybe - a few words to encapsulate our entire lives. What will my words be?
I have some preconceived ideas, but I have to see if they stand up to rigorous testing. I plan to spend an entire calendar year walking in cemeteries, reading at least 10,000 tombstones for clues. I have no idea if you can hit 10,000 in a year, because I've never counted them before. Is 300 per day too tall a task, or will I be hitting 500 on a good walk? I just don't know. I have a hand tally counter ready to spend the year in my palm.
For relevancy, I'll be visiting old (dead) friends - writers, naturalists, family members, people from my hometowns, the Italians of Greater Boston - you know, the user groups of my life. While the bulk of the people I call upon will be complete strangers, I'll try to see what it is that my friends and others who have shared at least part of my experiences have left behind.
And so it was on New Year's Day, 2013, I readied myself for my first targeted cemetery walk.