Written by Adam Knight
Three years ago today, many loved ones gathered to lay David Lee Nelson to rest. I was one of them. It was a traditional burial with a gravesite service – incredibly emotional and, looking back, a bit surreal, happening as it did only six months into the pandemic. Masks, much-needed hugs and sobs, lots of hand sanitizer.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2020, 37.9% of funerals were burials compared with 56% cremations. So in this way, Davey went old school, against the trend: casket, burial, gravestone.
In Stoic philosophy there is the idea of memento mori (“remember death”). This idea was influential on Roman and early Christian thought. One story goes that, during Roman victory parades after a big conquest, someone’s job was to stand behind the dictator and whisper in their ear, “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal” over and over again.
Davey and I never really dived into Stoicism, but we did spend a lot of time in graveyards. Much of our “cemetery-ing” was in Charleston, where Davey lived and where we would produce shows together. Charleston’s nickname is “The Holy City” and there are a lot of churches and, hence, a lot of cemeteries. One in particular was Davey’s favorite: a beautiful graveyard tucked behind the Unitarian and Lutheran churches just north of Queen Street.
When friends would visit, the cemetery was always on Davey’s “walking tour”. I’m embarrassed to write that we both probably took a few dates there. But the best times were meeting Lauren Duffie for lunch at G&M then taking a leisurely stroll among gravestones.
The Lutheran section was more austere in its beauty, solemn and silent, the slant of light coming in from over the building walls. The Unitarian plots, by contrast, were lush and overgrown, many of the gravestones covered in flora to the point where you couldn’t even get close enough to read them. There was something beautiful about that. Nature taking over.
Sometimes Davey or I would stare at an old gravestone, privately imagining the life lived that is now just text on a slab. Maybe the person lived a long time and was buried next to their spouse. Maybe it was someone who died in middle age with no kin surrounding them. Sometimes it was a child or a fallen soldier. We’d contemplate the marker and say, “That’ll be us one day, Bertie.” (Our nickname for each other was “Bertie.”) I think we may have said this to one another literally A HUNDRED TIMES over the course of our friendship. And then, usually, the other would echo it back: “That’ll be us one day, Bertie.” And then we’d keep walking.
If I were to “unpack” those moments, I think we were both reminding ourselves that the life we have here is fleeting, that it can change slowly or in an instant – but change it must. I think these graveyard strolls kept us focused on the lives we were blessed with and the time that we had. And, whether conscious or not, we were also preparing ourselves for the distinct possibility that one of us would outlive the other.
Act V, scene 1 of Hamlet takes place in a graveyard. Hamlet returns to Elsinore to find two gravediggers at work. He happens upon the skull of the jester from his youth, Yorick. It’s an odd, morbid, and funny scene. But it’s also the scene that ultimately drives Hamlet to push forward and face his fate head on. That moment was very important to our production of Hamlet in Charleston in 2013, in which Davey played the title role. (Rob Daniel designed our poster which featured the infamous skull of Yorick. Very memento mori.)
Three years have now passed since Davey began traveling on the journey that Hamlet alludes to in Act III, scene 1 – a journey to “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveler returns…” I find it fitting and beautiful that Davey’s family and Jaimie chose to bury him in a town called Travelers Rest.
The gravestone reads DAVID LEE NELSON, II. BELOVED ARTIST, HUSBAND, SON, BROTHER, UNCLE AND FRIEND. JULY 29, 1978 – SEPTEMBER 24, 2020.
I encourage you to visit it, if you can. To spend time with this marker. To walk among the other stones. To see the view (it’s a nice view). There’s power in these places. “That will be us one day.”