From New Republic (February 21, 1994)
by Douglas Coupland
In Britain there is a subgroupof citizens called train-spotters who spend their afternoons sitting on railway embankments clocking the passage of local trains. In North America there is a similar subgroup, comprised almost entirely of teens, obsessed with hanging about cemeteries, continually witnessing the passage of life into death. They are called "Harolds" (etymology: the 1970s cult film classic Harold and Maude), and I was once very much one. The cemetery I frequented was the Capilano View Cemetery, the municipal burial ground of West Vancouver, located in the British Properties, a hillside Pacific Palisades/Glendale-ish suburb that was spawned ex nihilo circa 1950. (Its growth continued well into the 1970s.)
From the ages of 18 to 21, I Harolded away almost weekly at the Capilano View Cemetery, sitting on its benches, strolling among its neatly mowed stones, seeing who had died, when and at what age. Implicit in the act of being a Harold is a hubristic, self-conscious notion of one's own immortality. Harold laughs in the face of death (har, har, har!) and, most importantly, he derives a specific hit of adolescent pleasure from callowly knowing death exists, yet not fearing it.
Capilano View Cemetery is the only part of the British Properties to have a history of any credible duration. Its first burial was in February of 1926. The cemetery's topiaried ilexes, yews, cedars, spruces and cherries are all roughly fiftysomething, and thus supply the suburb' s young Harolds (I was not alone) with visible, capital "H" History simply not available at the Park Royal Shopping Centre or amid the post-and-beam Homes of Tomorrow, flanked by split-leaf Japanese maples, that line the Properties' steep, twisting streets.
Capilano View's ten spartan acres offer an uncompromising minimalism worthy of Mies Van der Rohe: no protrusive tombstones are allowed (all stones are flush with the soil and ideal for Friday night frisbee throws); all "floral offerings" must fit into cups recessed into the soil, so that the container does not peek above the earth's surface. Plastic flowers are allowed only between November 1 and April 1. The cemetery is flanked, to the north and east, by a great West Coast rain forest. There are rhododendrons; there are monkey puzzles.
Harold Lit.: Part of growing up in West Vancouver was to feel as if you were growing up in the middle of nowhere--a zero-history, zero-ideology, bond-issuing construct teetering on the edge of the continent. I used to read stories about tea planters and rubber plantation owners who died in hot climates and were buried the same day, for fear of rot, in lands far from home. Oh, how I identified with those tea planters! "Who are we if we have no landscape to call our own?" I would muse, surrounded by the grave markers. To be buried on the edge of nowhere is to question one's existence.
The Harolding habit continued into adulthood. I often visit cemeteries when I am in a new city, for they are havens of respite amid urban chaos. Toronto's Forest Hill is as quiet as the womb; Tokyo's Akasaka cemetery, usually empty save for a few special visiting days, has the sloppy, stacks-of-dishes feel of a bachelor's apartment. Cemetery architecture can also tell us much about the way a culture relates to its ancestry. Mexico's dazzling, almost optically painful marzipan crypt confections convey a "they are still alive" rapport with the departed; Ireland's mournful, lichen-encrusted Celtic crosses snaggletoothed over tufts of unscythed bracken speak of loneliness and of the realization that we all live with one foot in the grave. And West Vancouver's highly municipally ordinated, gridded and nearly invisible grave markers treat dying as a low-fuss return to nature. One's soul is simply atmed into the forest next door.
I stopped being a Harold because of one particular incident. In the summer of 1983 I was playing a toy xylophone on a cement bench at the extreme east edge of the cemetery. I was trying to duplicate the opening notes of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 1981 hit "Joan of Arc" (my brief flirtation with Catholicism). A few days later, reading a copy of the local biweekly North Shore News at a Midas muffler shop, I learned that there had been a grave robbery at the cemetery not a day after I had been playing the xylophone--and not far from my prized Harold's bench. A decayed head, or other body parts, had been exhumed and stolen, thieves unknown.
Well, that was that--I immediately ceased Harolding the Capilano View. Mortality (in the form of the most depressing ilk of trailer park evil) had crept in from the forest and invaded my pristine site. I remember being depressed and terrified at somehow being implicated in this random and seamy debauch. And to clinch my exodus, the newspapers reported that an additional five acres of forest, adjoining the cemetery's lovely north side, was to be chainsawed and cleared for additional grave sites. Expansion in the New World is invariably at the expense of nature--never at the expense of previously existing structures. And to someone completely of the New World, the ravaging can be too painful to watch. Ciao, Harold.
Of course, I did find myself back in Capilano View. Recently. By one's early 30s, loss in many of its forms invariably makes its presence known. I felt an urgent need to visit Harold's old stomping grounds.
I was surprised by what I saw. Yes, the spare green fields, flat as billiard tables, were unchanged. But the five-acre clearcut to the north had been left to go to seed. I had been expecting a putting-green carpet peppered with grave markers; instead the ex-forest sprouted a dense, furry hippie's beard of several thousand alders, their ganglions of leafless branches,poking upward. The fact that the forest had not been destroyed--merely repurposed as an alder glade--might, at first, seem like a reprieve, but it was not. By B.C. standards the alder is a weed tree, a mere precursor to degradation, destruction on hiatus. Alders mean that the bulldozers have yet to truly arrive, that the Circle-k mini-mart is still being designed. A field of Kentucky bluegrass would have at least indicated some form of completion, that the worst was over. Alders, on the other hand, show nature on the rack.
But this is tree-hugger talk, a B.C. thing. The fact is, I felt oh-so-much older standing next to this brain-dead glade, this copse of erased memory. Its millions of thick, chewy branches, three times my height, all bunched ridiculously close together, comprised a challenge impossible to refuse. And so, forgetting propriety, and soaking my sweater and pants and shoes, I stepped into this wet monoculture. I stepped into its mud and leather-strap branches, which slapped my face. I trudged deeper and deeper, as though into a field of tall, tall corn, and I went looking for Harold.