by Elaine Plybon

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I recently spent a week in West Virginia, finding and walking through old, mountain cemeteries to catch glimpses of my husband’s heritage. As an amateur photographer, I took pictures – lots of pictures – and spent a moment at each stone contemplating the life that stone represented. It was like I held a brief memorial service for each of the people whose headstone I photographed. I knew nothing about these people. Sure, I may have known if and how they were related to my husband, but I didn’t know what their favorite food was, what their voice sounded like when they were angry, whether they worried too much, or not enough. I knew nothing about them, but I honored them.

It was at one of the cemeteries that I had a sudden realization. I had been thinking over the past year or so that death is a final goodbye to anyone ever knowing who we really are, but this new realization was that death is an equalizer. It turns us all into the same thing – dust and memories. After all the people who knew us die, even the memories are gone.

Standing atop the dirt under which the remains of their bodies rested, I didn’t know what form of religion these people practiced, if any. I didn’t know what the color of their skin was. I didn’t know whether they thought women should be able to vote, or whether men should be in charge of everything. I didn’t know whether they were kind to children who weren’t theirs, or even if they were kind to their own. Did anyone like these people? Were they thoughtful and kind? Did they like to pull pranks on their friends?

For a society in which we focus so heavily on how people act or what they believe, death is like a giant eraser. It no longer matters what we believe, because we aren’t around to believe it anymore. Why, then, can’t we look past those things while we are all alive and find a way to appreciate each other because we are human beings, each with aspirations for a good life and to be good people.

Nothing else matters in the end.

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