Graveyards: How We Remember or Forget

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Graveyard is a strange compound word. Grave, as an adjective, means serious, solemn, sedate. The Oxford English Dictionary, one of those sources that is never wrong, says that grave actually started as an adjective:

Origin: Late 15th century (originally of a wound in the sense ‘severe, serious’): from Old French grave or Latin gravis ‘heavy, serious’ (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/grave)

This means that someone took “grave” meaning serious and applied it to a place to store the dead.

Then, take “yard.” Obviously we aren’t referring to three feet. Yard in this case is a grassy place to play, relax, enjoy. I’m thinking of tiny baseball games enclosed by a chainlink fence with my sister and our neighborhood friends, our dog Nike serving as our only fan.

So we put those together and get graveyard. A serious grassy place to play, relax, and enjoy. Seems antithetical, right? Woman, I love English (this is something new I’m doing. I so often say “Man, I…” Time to change it to “Woman, I….” right?”)

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Graveyards are fascinating. I remember driving through rural North Carolina on the way to Kyle’s place in OBX and seeing several tiny graveyards which must have been part of plantations at some point. There they sit. Undisturbed by roads and cars and the present. And who is there lying under that oak tree for eternity? Does anyone know anymore? And if no one does know who is there, how do we–we who disturb everything, disrupt anything to get what we want in this very moment–how do we manage to respect that one thing? Sometimes I think our society has a reverence for the dead that we do not apply to the living.

My aunts, sister, and I were walking near my Aunt Colleen’s house in Brentwood, Tennessee a couple of years ago. We saw Lady Antebellum’s house and the most green, rolling, peaceful hills this side of the Mississip. And then in the yard of another gorgeous home was a graveyard. It looked like a great spot to spend eternity. The owner was actually trimming the lawn as we walked by. He told us about his graveyard which was over 100 years old. He knew a little about the people who were interned there and seemed eager to tell us about them. It was like an old friend out front, or a few old friends, I guess.

According to Keith Eggener, author of Cemeteries, the modern day “memorial parks” as we know them didn’t exist in the US until after 1831. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts marked the shift from tiny rural and churchyard cemeteries to large, sprawling burial grounds.

In an article in The Atlantic Eggener says, “Burial isn’t just about celebrating the dead. It’s about containing the dead—keeping them out of the realm of the living, which is why cemeteries were removed from cities. We would like to go into their world when it’s convenient for us. Look at themes in popular culture, at how often the worlds of the living and dead intersect and how disastrous that often is. Think of zombie movies—havoc usually ensues.”

Containing the dead makes me feel a little sad until I remember the whole “we hold them in our hearts” deal, something in which I believe strongly.

When I was in high school long-term-main-squeeze, Tyler, worked for his grandfather’s company which was specifically responsible for landscaping and maintenance of Jewish graveyards in Baltimore. Tyler would trim around stones and mow lawns, spending his summers with Baltimore’s Jewish deceased population. He had a keen eye for recognizing Jewish last names and stories of his coworkers getting prostitutes during their lunch breaks. I remember thinking that I wanted to meet him at work for my own exploration. That was the first time I realized that graveyards were organized by ethnicities. But I get it now. Of course in a world where we segregate obsessively, we’d continue that segregation into the afterlife.

Gram lived in a Polish neighborhood growing up, of course she’d be buried with the Polish people who’d remain her neighbors forever. At Holy Rosary Cemetery in Dundalk there’s an American flag, a Maryland flag, and a Polish flag. Aside from the Polish flags, each last name is like its own little Polish flag. Unknown consonant combinations, amazing letter series I couldn’t pretend to guess and slews of Josephs, Walters, Annas, and Anthonys. Fake flowers abound and tumbleweeds are cloth petals and the occasional ribbon uprooted by weather.

Holy Rosary is literally 50 shades of gray, a few brown and splashes of orange and red fall-themed flowers for those who’ve had recent visitors. Some stones are sinking and breaking. Engravings worn away, angels with arms outstretched, and so many Marys and Jesuses. I wonder where the atheists go. Some dead are remembered most notably as soldiers–a name, birthdate, death date, and the title of a war. What they called you, when you arrived, when you left, and when you fought. Hm.

Some graves have photos on them–these are my favorite. I stop and picture the stiff images being together and in love and living in their little Polish sect of Baltimore.

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Gram’s parents’ markers are there next to where she’s buried (no stone yet). Her mom and dad’s last name is among the simplest around: Lutz, but only because they changed their last name when her dad couldn’t get work in the Baltimore shipyards with the uber-Polish “Lucskowski.” This was the most personal graveyard visit I’d ever done. I didn’t really know what to do so I defaulted to what I’d do when she was alive. I sat down on the ground next to her and I talked. It was kind of beautiful and I was grateful no one was around. I caught her up on a few things and told her how much we miss her and maybe if I closed my eyes and squeezed my face muscles, I could have imagined I was sitting on her living room floor like four months ago. I know I’ll be back. There really was a sort of peace there and a closeness I felt that I don’t necessarily get when I talk to her in my head elsewhere.

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Graves of Gram (left) and her mom and dad.

I recently listened to a podcast about Trump SoHo, a building in Manhattan. During its planning stages, the remains of 190 enslaved people and free African Americans were found buried under what was once Spring Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation of abolitionists that welcomed African Americans and apparently, gave their congregants a place to bury their dead as well. Obviously, a fight ensued (read: Trump was involved). What resulted, though, was a celebration of these people, who were disturbed in their eternal rest, and their reburial in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

I get the dilemma. We want to honor the dead but when does it end? I mean graveyards: people are dying to get in there! (Sorry.) Every minute there are more people to bury, intern, lay to rest for…ever? When does the space run out? I’ve heard that the largest wastes of space are golf courses and graveyards. Maybe we should combine the two and create half as much waste. Am I kidding? I don’t know.

At Pere Lachaise in Paris there are over one million people interned. As Chas and I wandered its walkways we saw Jim Morrisson, whose dad allegedly did not want his body and sent it back to Paris where he had died. We saw stones for tiny French babies buried way too soon. We stood in front of Oscar Wilde and several victims of the November 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan Concert Hall. People who would have never known one another in life are now together for much longer than any of them lived. Pere Lachaise is a breathtaking place (and I do not mean that as a pun, though it would be a good one). The beauty and variety of those graves made me want to spend the whole day there.

I’ve loved many graveyards in my time. In New Orleans, graves are all above ground because the city is below or at sea level. Walking around a graveyard in NOLA is like walking among the tombs.

One right on Roland Ave. in Hampden gets an awesome view of the city. It’s the best place in Hampden to watch a sunset–there among the dead who probably put this little neighborhood on the map. Some graves have shiny surfaces and sharply cut names and years, others are so faded you can’t make out who’s down there.

Poe’s grave near University of Maryland, Baltimore is another site to behold. Some stones are nearly at 45 degree angles with the ground. And Poe’s marker is massive, more prominent than he ever was in life.

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Poe’s ghost. Poe’s grave.

In Richmond the Hollywood Cemetery is adequately spooky. It’s a stacked masterpiece with terraces and gorgeousness but also Jefferson Davis and several people on the wrong side of history.

In Hof, Iceland–population 20–there are white crosses jutting out from soft ground in front of the tiniest little church. The Icelandic names–something to behold in their own right–are the only thing that differentiates the markers.

 

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Graveyard in Hof, Iceland. Population 20. 

 

On Naxos, a Greek island of the Cyclades, in a tiny mountain-carved town called Apeiranthos we walked around a graveyard where photos were the norm. This little town was quite literally made of marble. Its people seemed like they too were carved there and there they’d remain. And each of its graves had a photo. I guess in such a small place, as long as there’s a visual, everyone really could be remembered.

 

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Apeiranthos. 

 

Then there are the downtown graveyards of Philly and Boston where the brains of our nation’s founders sit shriveling. These spots are walkable history lessons. Graveyards can be multi-purpose if you embrace all aspects. There are also those whose graves have never been marked. Many never will be. Unknown soldiers, the poor of the past, who knows, maybe the poor of the present? Henrietta Lacks whose cells launched cancer research world-wide died in 1951 and only received a tombstone in 2010. Well-used but forgotten, now remembered.

The thing is, I will not even watch a commercial for a horror movie. But the edge-of-creepiness, gravity, spiritual closeness I can get in a graveyard, that I could do all day. Don’t get it twisted, I’m out of there well before dark.

I won’t pretend to know the solution to the space-suckers that cemeteries are. I imagine we eventually will have no real option but cremation and tiny markers. There are environmentally friendly options that allow the earth just to suck grave markers in after a generation or two. Or maybe the future people in their silver suits will send dead bodies off into space for eternity or just bury us on Jupiter or some planet we haven’t even heard of yet (we could call it Cemetron). I can see all of these options being fought tooth and nail, and skull and femur. And I’m pretty glad it’s not necessarily my problem, at least on a large scale. So I’ll keep visiting graveyards of those I don’t know, and maybe more often, those I do know. I’ll say silent vigils for youngest ones and smile at those who had full lives. I’ll sit and ponder all that these places are. Memories of lives, markers of deaths, places to be remembered and forgotten and stored. And I’ll hope that the people I’m walking over have other reasons to be recalled in the world outside those gates, like Gram has.

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This is one way Gram will be remembered. My cousin Ben had these made for our entire family. It was a phrase Gram said to us while she was in hospice. We celebrated her last night at Thanksgiving and Ben handed out these bracelets. ❤

2 thoughts on “Graveyards: How We Remember or Forget

  1. Very interesting! I remember walking around the graves Lewes DE with you and Aubrey and the McMahons when you were young. We read all the old dates and ages and speculated. So much variety there is in graves! In Cambridge, my friends and I saw some grave markers seemingly placed near where the people had lived….either free or enslaved, but not in any “graveyard’. I am glad that those people in Manhattan where able to have a decent burial after being moved out. There was an article in the paper last year about the environmentally friendly burials. Just toss the bodies into a hole as is…. no embalming fluid or preservatives, no coffin, I guess no clothes…. The implication is that the decaying body is good for the soil. Like compost. ( Unfortunately, it reminded me of the atrocities of the Holocaust.) But I guess there could be dignity because there would be a memorial service. The people who sell fancy coffins would be very upset.

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