I live in a village on the north shore of Nova Scotia. Most people say it’s beautiful, and they’re right. They also say we’re ordinary people, and we don’t argue. We fish, farm, and turn our hand to whatever might put food on the table. We try to charm the tourists so they’ll come back with more cash next year. We party Saturday night, go to church Sunday morning, and wish Monday would fall off the calendar.
And we’re kind to our dead.
There are maybe a dozen cemeteries around here. They’re all well-tended. A few are hard to find, but they’ll be little green gems when you do. The biggest, Lockerby’s, is unusually pretty. Some of the stones are set with little solar panels that glow until sunrise. More than a few have flowered saddles. Little flags are left on the veterans’ graves in November, lest we forget.
Once in a while the groundskeeper will find a few beer cans behind the stone at the top of the hill, but odds are good there’ll also be a full can sitting on the grave: our children are taught to share. We don’t shield them from the funeral rites. They sing the dead into the next world with the rest of us—and they’re just as likely to tease the undertaker the day after his favourite hockey team loses.
I love cemeteries. I like the footsteps in the grass before the dew burns off, showing that someone dropped by on their way to work. I like the wild strawberries that grow around the markers, and the occasional cat sunning itself on the packed earth. I like reading the names, dates, the little sayings that might have meaning only for the family. “Beloved Husband” and “Cherished Wife” are common lines. Sometimes their absence is significant. I like watching tourists take charcoal rubbings.
You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat their dead. By the consideration they give their history.
But… history is a touchy thing, isn’t it?
When the dead go to ground, they take their hopes and dreams with them, their jokes, their secrets—and ours. The dead know us.
In my story “Zombie Season,” when they rise, my hero says, “The dead know too many secrets, and some folks have reason to worry.” I wouldn’t argue that, either. They know about the time grandma bailed you out of jail. How your best friend picked you up behind the motel when your date got a little too rough. They sobered you up in time to get you to your next AA meeting. Cemeteries are also archives of the history we want hidden.
We might be wise to step lightly here. If we’re kind to the dead now, it wasn’t always so. When they were alive we took their time, their strength, their expertise. We burdened them with knowledge they could’ve lived without. Sometimes they must have felt as if they were being eaten alive. If they want payback, who can blame them? I know that when zombies rip our hearts out it’s mostly from hunger. But we don’t know what memories they still have. Maybe some of it’s contempt.
So even though we can’t charm the dead, we try. We give them light and flowers. We share our music, we tend their graves, we tell them we honour them. And we hope that when they rise they’ll show us the mercy we didn’t always give them. Even ordinary people know enough to worry.
“Rest in Peace” is the most common line I’ve ever seen on a headstone.
Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t a plea.
Nova Scotian writer Catherine MacLeod has published short fiction in On Spec, TaleBones, Black Static, and several anthologies, including the upcoming Horror Library 4 and Tesseracts Fourteen. She shares a birthday with Bram Stoker, a fact which delights her no end.