Because I didn’t think I was my best shiny-souled self when last I blogged, I sat down yesterday at the library to noodle something “lite” but good for you. Anyhow, I tried.
No sooner had I taken care of a few bits of online housekeeping than I flew into rebellion against all acts of duty. I couldn’t blog. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t bear the noise of the library. I couldn’t face the prospect of going home and cleaning my car (which I had to do because I was scheduled to drive a friend to the hospital and I’m sure she didn’t want to arrive wearing dog-fur britches).
I had to get out. Had to be free. Had to spend money.
I took care of the spending money part at the thrift store (four shirts for $5), collected Ava, bought a latte, and headed out for unknown territory.
The most unknown territory of all — death.
Which sounds more dramatic than it was.
Our area has several tiny disused graveyards tucked away amid the trees, plus one surprisingly large, and very beautiful cemetery whose burials run from the late 19th century to day-before-yesterday. I’m sure to you New England types, or even more you few Europeans reading here that’s no time at all for a burial ground, but it’s long enough to have collected a surprising number of stories.
Someone more skilled than I could write a west coast Spoon River Anthology about the stories buried with the people here. To begin, if the writer wasn’t already an area oldtimer, she’d probably want to talk with Dave. The place is his responsiblity. He mows the lawn, digs the graves, rousts snoozing druggies, keeps the registry, pours cement slabs to bear the monuments, and can tell visitors off the top of his head the location of every one of the dead, if they simply give a name.
And he knows the stories.
There’s the family whose four members all died within five years — three suicides and a (probably accidental) drug overdose. They’re buried in the same section of the cemetery thanks to the dates of their death, but they’re not clustered together, nor do they have similar “themed” monuments. Seems fitting. They didn’t like each other much, so why pretend to get cozy under tombstones? The violent suicide of the youngest and least-loved child set off the chain of events. The favored child, with nobody left, and consumed with guilt, went last.
And there’s the woman murdered late at night in a c-store, her killer never caught due to small-town police ineptitude, but his identity guessed by everyone. And the wife who was buried next to her husband — who died 50 years before she did. The two high school girls, lifelong best friends, who sneaked out of school one fine spring day and ended up under a logging truck. The friends also ended up buried under matching, connected headstones despite being of different families, cultures, religions, national origins, and races.
So many more. There are surprisingly many stories for such a lightly populated area.
Somewhere out there is an acquaintance of mine from dog rescue days. Young, attractive, a daughter of fortune married into the richest family in town. Dead of a rare, fast-moving cancer. She has a border collie etched on her memorial.
One very young woman, whose self-caused death might have been a Darwin Award candidate if such had existed then, still has a guestbook in a jar and is plied with heart-and-flower mementos and “We love you” banners a quarter of a century after she had to be craned out of the bottom of a ravine. She was a popular girl, athletic, and pretty. Her stone holds an embedded photo that preserves her forever cheerleader-young.
There are a lot of young adults under ground in this cemetery. I think of A.E. Houseman’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden” from A Shropshire Lad.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
I like to wander around these graves, though the slopes are steep and the ground uneven. Ava loves it too, for the freedom to roam without boundaries. It really is the most beautiful place, better than most of our parks.
One of my favorite graves, though I don’t know its story, is a recent one of a 20-year-old guy. In an oval, there’s a photo of him in camo with rifle in the woods. Friends have left rifle cartridges and shotgun shells, along with a bottle of Hoppes #9, at the base of his tombstone.
Dave the groundskeeper (sexton? what’s the correct word for his job these days?) respectfully leaves items like that, though I’m sure he must toss more than his share of faded plastic flowers, beer cans, and even occasional hypodermic needles. He told me once that friends sometimes place (as he put it in his old-fashioned way) doobies or baggies on graves. I wonder if he leaves those, as respectfully as he leaves the shotgun shells or the cute, colorful charms left on the Darwin cheerleader’s grave?
The real heartbreakers of course are the graves in the special children’s section — covered with toys that no visitor ever steals, but no little kid will ever enjoy again.
Or the graves of people who died 30 or 40 years ago, but are still identified only by temporary metal plaques on stakes (the ones with movable letters that serve as utilitarian records, not as memorials). You wonder whether nobody was around to care when they died — or whether there were people around, but none cared enough to spring for a gravemarker. Take that, you old vicious bastard of a father. I can finally reveal what I think of you, manipulative mom. So there, ungrateful son.
Aside from the stories you can know, there are so many messages only the dead and the people who lived with them, for good or ill, could understand or convey.
It’s funny. The experience of walking around in a graveyard feels profound, very moving even when you have no connection to the dead below your feet. Surreal, too. There you are, enjoying a sunny day, relaxing, contemplating while every manner of human tragedy and drama lies below you. And maybe even a few great love stories, no longer readable.
You peer at century-old marble stones of people who surely wanted to be remembered. But the marble is too weathered and moss-grown now to reveal their names. You wonder which of the wide, coupled stones with wedding rings and marriage dates really denotes a happy, devoted union and which are just the polite cover-up for a decades-long slog of abuse and resentment.
You contemplate mortality. And the afterlife. And whether dogs have souls and why they can’t they be buried with their people and share their markers. Surely, plenty of the people underfoot secretly — or openly — would have rather shared eternity with their dogs or cats than their parents or siblings.
Then you see the grave of that old woman, buried next to her 20-something husband-that-was. Never remarried, never forgot him. And there you feel the love.
Taking a walk in a graveyard is a genuinely profound, complex, philosophical, and often exceedingly weird human experience.
But try and write anything more than shallow observations like these, and somehow all that depth of feeling spews out as cliches.
What can you say about death, except that every one of us is (cliche alert) creeping, we hope not zooming, galloping — or (worse) plummeting like Wile E. Coyote with an Acme parachute — closer to it every day? Then, after all the chaos, agony, and hopeful lights of life comes this ultimate, dreaded thing — which maybe by the time it arrives you actually welcome. Or you’re anticlimactically too zoned out or Alzheimered to notice. Or maybe at the end you fear death more than ever and you gasp and rattle away, terrified of suffering as you still breathe — or dreading the maw of Hell once you stop.
Then … you end up in the most peaceful place in the universe, a graveyard.
And some woman’s dog takes a poop on you.
I enjoy the cemetery too. Lots of history there, Too bad the dead can’t talk and tell us their stories.
About the graves without a marker: my maternal grandfather is one of those. His eight children chipped in to buy a stone for their mother, his wife, but not for him. My mother fiercely hated her father, but never really explained why. Once I mentioned that it would be nice if he had a stone. My mother said, “Don’t you ever do that, even if you win the lottery.” I don’t know what he did that was so bad, and she didn’t want to give the details.
Apparently a dysfunctional family, that has had ramifications in my life as well.
> And some woman’s dog takes a poop on you.
😀 Bravo. I haven’t read a caboose like that one in a very long time.
I didn’t flee the noise of the library today — how odd that that’s a thing now. Yes, I notice it when I’m there, and I remember when libraries were much more quiet. But I did spend a bunch of money. Sigh.
I used to know some Goths who had picnics in the cemetary. Haven’t been in one myself for decades, and don’t expect to end up there either.
Maybe the most poignant stories could be told by the graves with no markers at all, though of course they can’t because nobody knows they’re there.
I have a very close relative whose ashes are buried in a family-owned plot but with no marker, and if the one-legged person responsible for seeing them interred had obeyed his own wishes, they’d have been flushed. And mine is not a particularly drama-prone family.
On Boot Hill, in Tombstone Arizona, there’s a marker that says, “As I once was, so are you now. As I am now, so you shall soon be. Remember me. Frank Boyles.” I guess it worked.
My son’s Eagle Scout project was mapping the local town cemetery. The original records of that cemetery burned in a fire in the 1920s, so it was a useful exercise. Over a period of three weekends, about 20 people helped photograph, clean, and map the graves in a grid.
This is New England, and the cemetery itself dates back to 1812. Those interred include Revolutionary War soldiers up through Korean and Vietnam veterans.
In this little town, some notable inhabitants include a general that died in Manassas, Virginia. Hmm – battle of Bull Run #1 during the War Between the States. It’s a marker, only. We’re pretty sure the general wasn’t hauled back into the boonies.
There are some simple ones, like the one that dated to the 1820s: “Johnny Smith, 16 years old. Drowned.” ( I don’t remember the exact name, but the rest is accurate ).
A heart-breaking one with a glass-covered photograph of a little girl, about 3 years old, with a doll. The metallic picture showing no fading after a hundred years in the sun and winters.
But, the most interesting to me, was a smooth paving-type rock, just lying in grass. Since we were cleaning, that stone, which was clearly natural, looked like it didn’t belong.
But, when you picked it up and turned it over, there was a picture painted on the bottom side. In vivid colors with flowers and smiling sun, and stick figures of a mom and two kids – and the words, “We miss you dad.”
We photographed it, and put it back.
My family has lived in this part of New England for many generations. A large, old cemetery on a hill overlooking the oldest part of town contains the graves of many ancestors and relatives. We buried my grandparents there 30 and 40 years ago. My parents joined them on that hill about five years ago, at a spot they picked overlooking a pond. An uncle joined them two years ago, and an aunt, two months ago.
We visit them from time to time, just to remember. There is a strange feeling of connectedness, with the relatives you knew, and the ancestors you never knew save for stories told by reminiscing elders. An unbroken chain, begun long ago, branching out over the years to where we are now. Now, we are the elders.
Wandering through the graveyard, one can’t help but wonder about the people there. What were their lives like? Hard but happy? Constant sorrow? The number of young children in the oldest sections brings the sobering observation that some of those families had more dead children than live ones that grew to become parents themselves.
Some graves get flags this time of year. A few of those read something like “Pfc., U.S. Army, Dec. 20 1924 – Mar. 12 1943.” The scouts who place the flags are the only visitors to many of those long forgotten graves.
My father and uncles get flags, though they were the lucky ones who came back alive to live good long lives. We will be visiting them, to honor and remember.
I have wandered through a few old cemetaries in my time. I found an old pioneer cemetary in a near ghost town that was hidden in the midst of a residential area, the plums falling off the trees and littering the entire area. I read every headstone epitaph and was impressed that these were real people complete with errors and faults and not just names on a rock.
I found mis-spellings and date errors due to research of specific events but what struck me the most were the epitaphs. I photographed and recorded the most memorable epitaphs; I converted these to both hardcopy and digital formats so I could always keep them with me. I have often re-read and pondered them in my heart. With some of them you could feel the sadness and heartbreak and others a mere familial duty.
I have treasured my time spent in these quiet refuges from the modern busy world. I shut off the modern millstone (the cell phone) and wander these memorials. I wish more people would love these places as I do. I can almost hear the whisperings of the deceased denizens of these parks of stone during my ramblings. Just almost . . . .
About 40 years ago, a young lady and I went for a drive down random country roads. She suggested we stop at a township cemetery where she cut grass one summer. We stopped and wandered through the gravestones as my friend told me stories about the stones and the families. She said she had one favorite of all, and she told me the story as we walked to see it: a husband and wife could not get along. They were briefly married, had a couple of kids, then split and did not speak to each other again for fifty years, but they never divorced. In her old age, the woman moved in with one of her elderly daughters, and the man moved to a little shed that was built on the daughter’s front lawn. The daughter cooked and cared for her mother and father for several years, both living just 50 feet apart, but never together under the same roof. But when they died…they were buried side by side, together again, forever.
Before we got to the gravestone, I said, “and they were the Lindbloms, right?” “How did you know?” she asked.
They were my great grandparents.
Every Monday I proof our local weekly newspaper, including the obits. There are some pretty amazing people around here, who have done some pretty amazing things with their lives, many of them very quietly making a difference in the world.
And amidst all that history and reverence, some people let their dogs run free, and pee and poop on that sacred ground.
Cemeteries are, oddly, for the living. We are the ones who find meaning there.
That’s why I want my gravestone to mention both of my Congressional Medals of Honor and my Nobel Prize. But mentioning my Olympic medals might be a bit much.
My grandfather’s farm has a cemetery. If I remember right, the most recent headstone was from 1908. Most were from the 1800s.
The ones I found the most heartbreaking were the ones where the birth and death were only days apart. Or the ones where the mother was buried next to her baby, with the same death date on both headstones.
“And amidst all that history and reverence, some people let their dogs run free, and pee and poop on that sacred ground.”
Does it help if I bag it?
Ava will probably wonder why her mistress saves that stuff, but by all means bag it. Much more pleasant for the next walker.
(I wrote a story, “My Kelly,” from the viewpoint of Duff, a terrier, who wondered the same about his favorite person, Kelly. But he figured it made her happy, and he always wanted her to have her happy.)
“They were my great grandparents.”
“We miss you dad.”
“[His ashes would] have been flushed.”
“Don’t you ever do that, even if you win the lottery.”
I don’t know where my parents, or for that matter any of my family members are buried. Scattered all over the place. No roots, no connections. I’m sure my sister, who is all about appearances, gave both my parents “proper” gravestones. Probably even a joint stone with wedding rings and wedding dates, despite the fact that they loathed each other for all 50+ years they were together.
I’d have definitely given Mom a memorial, but Dad? Not even if I’d won the lottery.
I find reading tombstones habit forming, even went on a trip to New England just to do it.
Been to the Hollywood graveyard in Richmond, VA many times too, has a few presidents of the US and the one of the confederacy, you can tell were the fallen fell by the dates on their tombstones.Could spend a week there and not get it all in, one other thing is many of the markers of those who survive the civil war has notations something to the effect of;
Proud to have never sworn allegiance to the US.
Claire, if you want to find out where your parents are buried, try this site: