chapter  3
Grave Memories
Pages 20

The great cities of civilization, Rainer Maria Rilke once remarked with Rome in mind, are burdened by “an abundance of […] pasts.”1 More particularly, as the broad domain of human history records, there has always been an immemorial sense of patrimony given over by civilizations in a variety of architectural, cultural, social, and spiritual forms to the reverence-and placation-of the dead. Speaking in the broadest cultural and historical terms, urban historian Lewis Mumford contends that, beginning with the ritualistic practices of the earliest human settlements, the city over time has come to symbolize the ceremonial meeting place that serves as the goal for pilgrimage: “a site to which family or clan groups are drawn back, at seasonable intervals, because it [the city) concentrates […] certain spiritual or supernatural powers, powers of higher potency and greater duration, of wider cosmic significance, than the ordinary processes of life.”2 Consonant with the magnetic pull of “the city of the dead [as] the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city”3 is the assertion that the origins of language itself can also be traced back to the pre-alphabetic signs of ancient burial sites as well as later alphabetical inscriptions engraved on funeral monuments located at the heart of ancient settlements. Yet while epitaphs manifest themselves in many forms beyond engravings or hieroglyphs on tombs or gravestones, as acts of commemoration their shared sources of feeling solemnize our human points of origin and tendency sub specie aeternitatis. Inseparable therefore from civilization as we have come to know it, epitaphs speak to that liminal space separating the living and the dead: they have the power to reconcile our belated claims on life while reminding us, ultimately, of that final journey we must ourselves one day make beyond the world of the living.