03 May 2012

Rite of Spring

"I was thinking of walking down to the cemetery to visit the greenhouse today... do you want to come along?"
At the foot of the road there is a cemetery that dates back to the 18th c. and my neighbor and I  take walks there throughout the year. Its wrought iron fencing runs along the road for about three quarters of a mile and then dog legs to the left and runs another quarter mile down the aptly named Cemetery Road.

The headstones range from early 18th c. slate tablets that rise from the earth like black jagged teeth, to late 18th c. coffin-shaped above-ground vaults, to mid-19th c. Victorian obelisks and dour mausoleums, to 20th c. granite monoliths.  Among my favorite headstones are the ones with young girls perched on top, strewing flowers, or small dome-shaped stones covered with carved baskets of flowers and birds, or the simpler ones which merely have a small Victorian hand on the front, pointing upward.  ("He went thataway...")  

The family names run the gamut, from the everyday to local brahmins whose surnames still grace city buildings, tree-lined avenues and university buildings.  Despite being surrounded by a highway to the west, commercial real estate to the north and south, and neighborhoods to the east, the cemetery is so vast that once you've walked into the center you feel entirely cut off from anything but its own lovely peace and stillness. All the lanes (barely a car's width) run willy-nilly up and down the cemetery's hilly terrain and each is named after a different tree or shrub, which isn't surprising since there are hundreds of trees throughout the grounds. Towering oaks, sugar maples, gigantic bronze chestnuts, weeping willows. There is even a small lake in the center of the cemetery, just down a hill, and the most prestigious mausoleum on the grounds has the very best prospect of the sunset on summer nights. 

By far the saddest area—potters field—is a flat expanse of land that I discovered only a year or so ago, no doubt because of its location down a small dirt road behind a stand of swamp maples... as if to be buried without name or in penury was not shame enough, they had to be placed a little distant from those who had the advantage of income when they passed.  Here there are only small cobbles set in the earth with numbers on them, but despite its forbidding location, some friends and families have come by and placed personal items near these numbered markers:  teddy bears, flags, flowers, cardboard signs with names and birth dates noted in brightly colored paint.  One summer a performance artist placed a small silver bell at each stone, and as the wind blew over them the tinkling sound could be heard past the swamp maples, down the road, and out into the cemetery proper, as if calling out: 'We are here... we are not forgotten."

Along the iron fencing there are several gates where pedestrians can enter and simply roam the grounds. By the front gates there is an overseers cottage and a large rambling greenhouse. Originally intended for the groundskeepers, in recent years the greenhouse has generously opened its doors to the public. A master gardener runs things and is there 6 days a week, selling beautiful healthy plants for a fraction of what they're worth and seeing that all proceeds go to charity. On any given day throughout the year you will find long tables filled with whatever is appropriate for the season:  Pots of pointsettias to adorn Christmas homes and chapels, bedding plants for spring gardens or cascading baskets of hanging flowers for summer gazebos. Throughout the summer my neighbor and I will occasionally go down to look over what's available and invariably bringing home flats of blooms for our gardens. My favorites are always the coleus: copper-edged, black veined, frilly leafed beauties of every imaginable color including lime green, oxblood, and ochre.  

But on this day in late March we didn’t go to buy anything. This was simply our annual “first trip of the season” to let the long-missed scent of soil permeate our lungs and the 80 degree temperatures warm our winter-weary bones. As is usually the case during this first spring outing, the tables were filled with potted Easter lilies, their green-egded buds standing at attention atop tall rigid stems. Within the week they would unfurl like angelic trumpets, their alabaster petals curled back on themselves; but on that day they were still "cooking" in the soil-drenched heat, waiting, as we were, for Spring to arrive in earnest.

On our walk home we indulged our usual habit of reading headstones, saddened by the small stones in family plots that simply said "Baby", and trying to figure out the obscure connection between relatives and offspring, and the convoluted relationships between 2nd and 3rd wives and their seemingly much healthier husbands. ("Okay so she was his wife, but this was his child by that woman...")  On this particular day we came across a tomb with a nearly illegible verse poem on one side. She began to read it aloud but then stopped.

“House of cod?  Was he a fisherman??”

I leaned in and read the verse myself and then laughed outright.

Not house of cod....   House of GOD!?”

We studied another obelisk, clearly the resting place of a soldier, and it was apparently my turn to make a fool of myself. 

“What on earth is a SP.AM. war?" I asked, not noticing the periods. "This has to be over a hundred years old.... how could they have known about SPAM wars back then??”

She studied it for a minute and then turned to look at me.

“Spanish American War ... not SP.AM. !?!?”

Not all is dreary in a cemetery. Sometimes a bit of unexpected mirth lifts its face and winks at you and laughter rings out amidst the rows of the dear and departed.   I hope they didn’t mind.


  1. Dear Haworth,
    I loved reading this post. You are a person after my own heart. I do believe that cemereries are not dreary. They tell us tales of family and history of times gone by.
    The cemetery at the end of your lane looks a little forelorn.. (here i am making a comparison)
    Its very strange that the gatekeeper sells such beautiful flowers ..they could be placed on the graves..
    It even shows in death, that there is a divide - poor and wealthy.
    Its very sad really,
    I recently went to our village cemetery..my friends husband died in a car crash a year ago 2nd may.. I took photos of the cemetery..and thought that i would later write a post.
    Thank you so much for this lovely post and hommage to dear souls departed.
    happy weekend val

  2. Thank you, Val. It's a beautiful place to wander around. The area where all the soldiers are buried (from the Civil War and on through WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, and Iraq) always has flags on each grave on the holidays and they look so beautiful and noble when they blow in the breeze.

  3. You make this place (ahem) come alive. Love the thot of tinkling bells. And the greenhouse. It would all lend itself to contemplation.

  4. It does invite contemplation, Jacqueline, and is a peaceful place to walk around in any season. But sitting under one of the beautiful trees in summer is especially nice.

  5. Such a thought provoking post, and beautifully written. Reading about the silver bells placed at each grave was particularly moving.

  6. Hi Haworth,
    I am drawn to cemeteries too. The simplicity of a life wrapped up in a few well meaning words... The bells, haunting, lovely! I believe the residents enjoyed your laughs :-)

  7. Thank you, Nancy! it was indeed very moving. You can see glimpses of Potters Field from the road through a maze of Bittersweet. The makeshift home-made memorials always tug at the heart.. it's all they could afford for their loved ones.

  8. Hi Bella! I'd like to think they enjoyed our laughter, too. Some of the things written on the older stones are so touching and, as you say, can only capture the spirit of entire life. There's an enormous flock of ravens that roosts in that cemetery each evening -- they fly out in droves each morning and then return at sunset. It's always strangely unsettling to see, but I like to think they're the guardians.