Cemeteries are not really my scene. In my lifetime thus far, I have been blessed enough to not have to watch the body of a loved one be lowered down into physical oblivion. That is not to say that I have never been to a cemetery; I have gone with close friends for support. The ritual tends to be the same: find the place of burial, replace the wilted flowers with fresh ones, and reflect on the life that now lives on in spirit. Typically by that last step, I have wandered off to give the friend a moment alone with his loved one. Off on my own, I tend to find myself examining each tombstone as if it has a story to tell. Upon first inspection of the tombstone, the story seems to only have a beginning (the birth date) and an end (the death date); but, as I take a closer look I realize that everything in between is right there, too, in that dash that links the two dates together.
One of the first appearances of the dash in English writing occurred around 1600, when it functioned as a way to mark abruptness or irregularity. (The dash is not to be confused with the hyphen, which is much shorter and is used to join words and separate syllables of a single word.) As English grammar developed so did the repertoire of the dash, and now we tend to see it commonly used to denote a break in a sentence, to set off the source of a quotation, or to indicate spans. The latter is how it operates to show the span of a person’s life between his birth date and death date.
Just picture it: everything that happens in your life from the time you enter the world to the time you leave it is embedded in a short, horizontal line. That is your mark on the world, a tiny etching on a block of marble. It is no different than the dash on the tombstone to the right or left of yours. Neither is it wavy like a tilde nor segmented like a dotted line. It is rigid, plain, and uniform in appearance. But in representation, it is so much more.
Scanning a sea of headstones in a cemetery puts lifetimes into perspective for me. I find that our time on this Earth is short-lived and inconsequential when looking at this morose, but accurate “big picture”. As much as we may want to be remembered for achieving something great –finding the cure to cancer, redefining the constraints of society, challenging the government, inventing the new “it” thing, most of us will go on to live extraordinarily ordinary lives. But then I take note of the dashes on those headstones and I am reminded that even though those lives may have been ordinary they are still of worth to the people who knew them. When my friend looks at his mother’s grave, that dash will incite recollection of pockets of her life and character: her stressful 9 to 5, her mean sandwich making skills, her quick wit, her nonverbal reprimand. Would her life seem unexceptional to the outsider’s eye? Probably so. To that of my friend? Definitely not.
I can accept that our lives are reduced to this itty-bitty symbol knowing that when I pass there will be people who will know that it is so much more. That does not mean that I am compelled to live my life so that I may be immortalized in the eyes of others. Rather I am inspired to live my life by my standards so that it may transcend the homogeneity of the dash.
Allow me to explain further. In art, there is a method called pointillism—a bunch of strategically-placed, individual dots working together to create a cohesive image that appears to be constructed of typical lines, curves, or shapes. The dash is that final image. The individual moments that comprise our lifetimes are those dots. Instead of the mere dash that an outsider sees, when we are connected to the late person, we see those moments, those dots that were carefully and uniquely constructed and crafted to create what would appear to be just an ordinary life, a boring ol’ dash.
Who we are and what we do during our lives will be that dash some day. The thought of that usually lay dormant in the back of my mind. But on the occasions where it makes it to the forefront, I’d like to think that when my loved ones find my burial site, replace the wilted flowers with fresh ones, and reflect, they will see my dash and know that I lived it extraordinarily no matter how rigid, plain, and uniform its physical presence may be.