Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Grave Matters

Here's that picture again.Okay, this one is going to sound petty and disrespectful, almost blasphemous.

Why can't my mom be in a really cool cemetery?

I know how a cemetery ought to look. I've seen your blogged pictures of old cemeteries Back East, with their classic upright headstones surrounded by wrought iron fences. I've walked among the early 20th century graves in Fayetteville, NY, and much, much older ones on Nantucket. I've seen the high end statuary in that cemetery near Syracuse University, and the deer or moose shaped one at Evergreen Cemetery on Oracle Road in Tucson. I've been to Boot Hill in Tombstone. I've been to the Haunted Mansion. I've watched Buffy!

Wm Clayborne. His name, spelled the same way, is also mentioned on the nearby grave of a man he shot.No vampire would be caught dead where my mom is buried. There are very few crypts to hang around in, and hardly any upright
headstones. Grave markers--that's the funereally correct term--are set in the ground, flush with the surrounding dirt, so that lawn mowers can be rolled past (and probably over) them without the clang of mower blade on granite or brass. As best I can tell, all the Tucson cemeteries are like that, over most of their real estate - at least, every patch of cemetery that's still accepting new tenants at semi-reasonable prices. Driving by these places, pretty much all you see is a lot of short grass, a few trees lining noose-shaped drives, and a combination office and mortuary building in the middle.

Glenn Will, (1871-1953) was shipped C.O.D. to Tombstone long after the West was won.I don't know whether this practical, don't-make-it-look-like-a-graveyard approach is a function of local custom, ground conditions, or the  economic realities of the times. I do know that growing up and traveling around, I always saw the kinds of grave markers that stood upright.

Down in Tombstone, Arizona, the markers in the old Boot Hill cemetery are definitely vertical, if not as formal as the ones in Fayetteville or Syracuse. They have a gallows humor to them that still draws tourists and sells postcards. Some of the more interesting ones are scattered around this journal entry. I think I read or was told that the markers there (at least the cross-shaped ones) are replicas of the originals, the 1880s wooden markers having long since rotted away. But they're still cool. You expect good tombstones in Tombstone, and you get them.

Good old Les Moore.I'm not saying I want my mom's marker to tell of a death as colorful as the ones noted on Tombstone's tombstones. I'm glad she wasn't "Hanged by mistake," "found in an abandoned mine," dragged to her grave by a cowboy after death by smallpox, or "stabbed by Gold Dollar." I'm just saying a flat marker in the ground lacks the sense of history and romance the other forms have, even if I did design the flat one myself.

I'm not a particularly morbid person, but I've designed a fair number of grave markers in my life. When JFK was shot, I sat in a class room or lecture hall in the Hall of Languages at Syracuse University, drawing headstones. I had no clue about the Eternal Flame or Arlington Cemetery, or that a murdered president's grave wouldn't be surrounded by the graves of more ordinary folks. I just drew a lot of inverted U shapes, and put the JFK epitaph on the big on in the middle of the page.

A few years later, I wrote on a rock above the tiny grave of the only parakeet I ever had:

Stinging Lizard??! That name makes the killer's name seem normal.Here lies Friskyblue.
He was no pest.
He broke his leg,
So now he'll rest.

I had been diagnosed with an allergy to feathers shortly before Friskyblue's death. 
Within a year or so of that burial, I also laid to rest a wild baby bird we'd tried and failed to save. I think I marked up a rock over that bird, too.

Twenty years after that, in 1989, I buried Jenny, the first dog I ever had. Or rather, I paid a handyman to do it. I've already posted the poem I wrote on that awful occasion, but here's a piece of it:

Died of smallpox. Cowboy threw rope over feet and dragged him to his grave.There was no moon out as he dug her a hole,
Watched by the rabbits, gnatcatchers and me,
While hawks screamed, but only because they were free,
As he struck sparks from rocks with his long digging pole.

When he was finished, the moon rose at last.
He carried the tools out and then drove away,
While I struggled to mop up the smell of decay
From a dog still alive just a day and a half past.

Yes, Jenny got a painted rock, too. Her marker proclaimed her "The best dog in the world." I wasn't far wrong on that. She was certainly the best dog in my world.

It's more than a box.My next dog, Noodle, is in the room with me now. Her ashes are in a plain white oblong box, taller than it is wide, labeled with a paper sticker the size of a business card. Last night I discovered that at some point the intermittently leaky ceiling over my built-in bookshelves caused the ink to run, so that the sticker now commemorates "Noo [smudge] [smudge]." The only thing about it that really says Noodle to me is the old dog collar slung around the base of the box.

On the whole, I think I'd have preferred a back yard grave and a painted rock.


Color photos by KFB. Black and white ones by JBlocher. Or maybe I took some of the black and white ones, too. It was a long time ago, but I think maybe I did take them.

Tourists seem unimpressed by the fate of the McLaurys.
Above: Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and some sightseers.

the entrance to Boot Hill, 1986. Photo by JBlocher.
Karen outside Boot Hill at the edge of Tombstone, Arizona, not far from the OK Corral.


ryanagi said...

I know what you mean about cemeteries and grave stones. Those vast fields of low mown grass with the flush headstones just don't do it for me. The one where my SIL is buried is so...blah. You can't even tell there are graves there until you are on top of one or unless the family has inserted one of these metal flower holder thingies into the ground. I love the cemetery where my grandma, grandpa and great aunt are buried. Their parents are there too. It's the oldest cemetery in Troy NY. The graves are crowded together and there is a riot of different head stone and monument types going on. Big crypts, marble slabs, large religious statuary...very gothic really. Sadly, the concept of "perpetual care" isn't practiced well there. Many of the graves are overgrown with weeds and some of the stones were broken or tipped over by vandals...but it has character. A somberly beautiful gloom. They don't sell plots there anymore. The only spaces left are ones that were purchased long ago...as yet unused family plots. I know there is one space left next to my grandmother. I can't remember who it was originally meant for. I think my great aunt's husband (but she never married). Their parents bought the family plots decades ago. My friend's daughter is buried in a really pretty Jewish cemetery. My best friend was buried in an old-school Catholic cemetery with some pretty monuments too. You can still find a lot of those traditional plots here on the east coast. Me? I want to be cremated. I'd like a pretty marble bench dedicated to me somewhere scenic. Overlooking the water. Sprinkle me in Hawaii. In my heart, that is home. :-) Somewhere deep down I still admire those really pretty family crypts with the stained glass windows, altars, marble and gilt. A very pretty resting place, indeed. (Hey! I am allergic to feathers too! And Sheba's ashes are currently on my fireplace mantle. No decisions what to do there yet.)

sistercdr said...

My parents' cemetery has markers as well.  I don't like it.

justcherie said...

I love this entry!  (I know you saw my Cemetery Day post!)  I have always loved cemeteries, especially the old ones.  My grandparents are buried in one like your mom's, all flat gravemarkers, only theirs are brass instead of stone, even worse!  I know these are more practical (much easier for the groundskeepers to maintain since they can mow right over), but they have NO personality!  And while I plan to be cremated, my husband and I plan to have a marker at my favorite old cemetery in western PA, maybe a granite bench with our info engraved so future grave hunters will have a place to rest.

daephene said...

There's a cemetary with flat stones near where I work.  It's the first of those I've seen.  I used to live near the oldest cemetary in town, with nice old markers and lots of statues.  Even the new graves there, though, have flat markers.  Myself, I really want a mausoleum.  Just a small one, to keep family urns in.  But only if I had a big family who thought they might want their ashes stored there too.  Too big of a memorial for just me.

chasferris said...

I think the flat markers are more dignified and more enduring.  But as for me, I have prepaid for a burial at sea.