The Girl Who Died

I never understand why people think cemeteries are such fearful, dreadful places. I find them to be quite beautiful. Of course, they remind us of our own mortality, but they’re also proof that we lived, that we meant something once. I especially like European cemeteries with their garden plots. Seeing a garden, I cannot help but think of life itself. Every year, they sprout, bloom, wilt, and die in an endless cycle. Life and death are intricately connected. Fragile and transient, they bring beauty to this world.

I remember visiting the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. From what I hear, he just keeled over one day of a heart attack while taking down the Christmas tree. But I never knew him. I had only been born two weeks before. My grandmother would now and then stop by to tend to his garden plot and I would go with her. It’s not as well kept as its neighbors for she prefers a wild, natural look. I think it’s fitting, and later delicate, lovely white flowers bloom and cover the little garden like so many twinkling stars.

Not too far from his resting place, though, lies another.

I was watching TV one day, some sort of detective or crime show. The topic of DNA testing to identify bodies came up. I thought it was neat and told my mom about it. That’s when she told me a story.

Apparently, not far from where we lived, a girl had died. It was a train accident and her body had been so badly burned that they could only identify her by her DNA, or perhaps it was her teeth… Anyway, the story stuck with me though I knew nothing of her, not her name, not her face, not even her age. All I knew was that this girl had died in a terrible way. It’s such a morbid thought that you might only be remembered for the manner in which you died. And yet, her story of all others stuck with me. I don’t know why. I would imagine what she looked like, what her life was like and why she was on the train that day.

Trains hold a certain mystique for me. Those great machines forebode adventure, destiny, life, and death. They are not like cars, or boats, or planes. The train can only ever follow the track that lies before it wherever that might lead. I imagine each place the train stops at, even though I will probably never see it, and I wonder what that very last stop, the end of the line, is like. I guess riding a train is like life in a way. Each of us chooses a direction. We might stop here and there, or even change trains, but we always continue onward. And we each come to a final destination.

An image once haunted me. A man captured on camera a moment of impact. He was part of a sightseeing flight, but the wrong path had been input and the unknowing passenger died as the plane crashed into a mountain. It is said, that the instant the passenger pressed the shutter button, he passed from life into death. I wonder if there is a stage between, a moment where one is alive and dead at the same time or perhaps neither. Imagine a ball thrown into the air. At its zenith it pauses for one moment, one mere moment, before falling back down to Earth.

I imagine that the girl died that way as well. I don’t like to think of her struggling to escape and eventually succumbing to flame, and smoke and heat. I imagine her staring out the window of the train at night. Whether she is watching the countryside pass by or taking refuge in her own thoughts, I do not know. I imagine her passing away the very moment her train crashes, unaware of what had just occurred. In that moment, she is between worlds.

However, I don’t like the phrase “to pass away.” Using it feels like hiding from death itself; a futile endeavor, like toddlers playing peek-a-boo thinking that because they cannot see, nobody else can. The phrase is “to die” not “to pass away.” This girl died, and so left her mark on the world. “Die” is a blunt word, not a romantic one, for death is painful and ironic.

At the cemetery, my grandmother paused for a moment beside an unknown headstone. The garden was beautiful with a tall, dark green tree providing shade and shelter.

“This girl” my grandmother stated, “died in a train accident shortly after you were born. She was returning home from school. She had wanted to take the car, but her parents worried about her driving in the dark. They told her to take the train because it was safer…”

I looked at the date. She was 21, the exact age I was. We are connected; I have always felt it was so. Now I imagine myself in her place. I think of the grief and guilt her parents must have felt. I think of the grief my parents would feel. She died when I was born. But she is dead and I am alive.