Friday, August 3, 2007

Summer Cemeteries

When I was a kid we'd often take road trips with my grandfather in his 1963 Ford Galaxy 500, a two-tone behemoth with an aqua-blue body and white roof. A tall man, he would drive with the wide bench-seat pushed way back, his long legs stretched out to reach the pedals, and usually no more than two or three fingers touching the steering wheel with just enough pressure to keep the car in the road. He never drove fast and he never seemed to be in a hurry. Indeed, driving was a pleasurable exercise, something one did for relaxation. Every drive was a Sunday drive, even in a weekday rush hour, and he doubtless angered many motorists who found themselves trapped behind him on a road that did not encourage bold passing across a solid yellow line.

Oddly, many of his drives included stops at cemeteries, a practice for which he was mercilessly criticized by my grandmother. If a cemetery looked interesting from the road, he'd pull in and hop out, leaving any disinterested passengers to roll down the windows and fan themselves. I, however, always followed closely, marching behind him through the aisles of freshly mowed grass and stone markers. Beckley, WV, Gettysburg, PA, Fredericksburg, VA, Boone, NC: I can still recall these and scores of other towns large and small through which we motored, and in which we stopped and sampled their cemeteries, from walled family plots to stark military burial grounds. He'd point out the ornate monuments, the mausoleums, and the simplest of headstones. Who was enjoying the benefits of "perpetual care" and which families had opted instead for overgrown weeds and grass gone to seed to frame their antecedents' graves? (To be honest, I've always thought the unmowed plots had more character, with clover, grass, chicory, dandelions and wildflowers allowed to encircle a plot. It's far prettier than the Wal-Mart-purchased plastic or silk flowers that grace most of the graves, fading and cracking in the sun.)

My grandfather always displayed a particular reverence around the graves of small children and babies, wondering what had taken these souls so early. (As a historian focused on the 19th century, I quickly learned that high childhood mortality was often the norm in an age punctuated by yellow fever, smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and polio. And my grandfather could always be counted on to tell a story about some cousin or neighbor who had died young, taken by an incurable ailment that now warrants no more than a few minutes with a pediatrician.)

Learning of this habit, one might accuse my grandfather of having possessed an overly morbid personality. That couldn't be farther from the truth, however. He was one of the most jovial persons I ever encountered. And death was not a subject on which he lingered, whether surrounded by headstones or sitting in the comfort of his home. Rather, I think he recognized the natural beauty of cemeteries, the artistry of many monuments, and the poignancy of some of the stories one encountered while stepping carefully from stone to stone. I also think he was perusing these grave sites in the way a tourist samples potential destinations in a travel agent's catalog. What I find disheartening, given his experiences, is the utterly mundane circumstances of his own final resting place. My grandfather now waits out eternity in a nearly treeless "memorial garden" surrounded by bronze urns of fake flowers, his name engraved in a plague bolted to a cement slab on the ground. I'm not suggesting he would have preferred a grandiose monument or elaborately carved stone. A nice view, however, shaded by trees and surrounded by wildflowers would have been perfect and a more accurate reflection of his own interest in natural beauty.

It's no surprise that I inherited his fascination with cemeteries, much to my wife's dismay. And like my grandfather, I'm quick to haul the car off the road if the effort promises an interesting walk through a field of graves, particularly if the stones are from the 18th century or earlier. A headstone's words and the style of its reliefs can say a great deal about how a society in a given age addressed death and eternity. In coastal Massachusetts, early 17th century Puritan stones, for example, often reveal a display of skulls and even demons, torments for the souls of the damned. Their gruesome symbolism reflected the Puritans' Calvinist belief in the uncertainty of one's salvation under a system that preached the predestination of each soul.

Thankfully, my boys are beginning to understand the appeal of a cemetery walk and happily follow me on my jaunts. Honestly, I'm no more morbid than anyone else. Nor do I think that these cemeteries possess the animate spirits of our forbears, at least not spirits that have any interest in the comings and goings of the mortal. If present, these spirits are more likely akin to those that populate the cemetery on the hill overlooking Grovers Corners in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. They've long since lost interest in us, the living, and are focused on the eternal, according to Wilder's Stage Manager. It's at once both a comforting and unsettling vision of death. Nevertheless, I'll continue to visit cemeteries, remembering my grandfather's legacy and passing it along to my sons.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

I don't see this fascination morbid in any way. I think cemeteries are fascinating, and the older and more rural, the better. I've been known to visit the cemetery where my father rests; it's beautiful and peaceful there and calms me. I love looking at and reading old stones and markers. The cemetery where many of my ancestors are buried in Frenchville, PA is very old and I can spend hours there. I love to try to pronounce the French names and imagine what the lives must have been like for those buried there.
I love that your grandfather instilled this interest in you and that you've shared it here.