Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Final Resting Place

 Overcrowding at Père Lachaise, Paris

Cemeteries. I love them. Some may think it morbid, but to me they’re like parks with historical treasures around every corner. History and Mystery! I’ve done family headstone rubbings in Québec, wandered Père Lachaise in Paris where I saw Héloïse and Abélard’s memorial, felt sympathy for the poor Colonial woman who lost all of her six children one right after the other in Rumford, stumbled upon William Blake’s gravestone while being lost in London.
I’m drawn to the bits of human story I can glean from what’s written on the stones. I applaud the individualism expressed in choices of design and image. I adore the giant gaudy mausoleums, the weeping angels, the winged death-heads, the maudlin little lambs.

Héloïse and Abélard~ Père Lachaise

 Detail of Monument~ Père Lachaise, Paris

Gravestone of William Blake~ London, UK

The earliest conscious memory I have of being fascinated with gravestones was at Mr. Conti’s. Mr. Conti was an art teacher I had as a child. (I was probably in college before I realized Conté Crayons weren’t named for him!) We went to his studio for classes, which was the bottom floor of his house. The house was built into a hill, and to get to the studio door we had to walk down a kind of narrow passage way with a gradually rising retaining wall on one side, and the house on the other. The passage floor and the retaining walls were paved with shards of Colonial slate headstones!* It was magic! I always wished Mom wouldn’t be on time to pick us up because I wanted longer to pore over the fragments of these lives so long gone.  
Further reinforcement of graveyard love was provided by my best friend, Mary Ellen’s father. On weekend afternoons, he would pile as many kids as would fit into his station wagon, and take us to the Old North Burial Ground. He had offered a silver dollar to the kid who found the first interred. We had a blast running around the place, scrutinizing stones,  jumping out and scaring each other from behind massive monuments, and over grassy tombs.  (Meanwhile, Mr. Maguire was probably enjoying a quiet read in the car, and was the hero of the neighborhood parents for giving them break from us.) Eventually, one of us found the primary planting, and some other diversion for the pack of us had to be invented.

*Before the historic preservation movement, one of the oldest cemeteries in the state was bulldozed to make room for a highway. Mr. Conti told me he went to the building site and collected as much as he could.  He also had a monkey that had the run of the studio! Clearly, he was deserving of the awe in which I held him.

Old Burying Point~ Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Witch Trials Memorial~ Rebecca Nurse

Hope Cemetery in Kennebunk is another favorite. In the back of the historic section, there was a lovely memorial circle, sunken a few steps, with stone benches and surrounded by cedars. And then there’s the monument to a young Victorian woman who died of “exhaustion” while climbing Mount Washington. (With all those corsets, can you doubt it?!) My dog and I spent many happy hours haunting the graves there - until four-legged visitors were banished, and so I felt I'd been banished, too.

Lizzie Bourne's Memorial on Mount Washington
(I don't have a picture of her monument in Kennebunk)

In an abstract way, I’ve thought about what to do with my body after the light is snuffed out - so to speak. Frankly, I’m more concerned with what happens while the light’s still burning, but it does come up in conversation. (At least, with the people I tend to hang out with.) I had a vague idea of being cremated - in the cheapest way possible – and then scattered in the natural setting of my heirs’ choosing. However, a message left on our answering machine this week turned the vague into the concrete, literally.

Out of the blue, Bill’s cousin Stanley called to offer us places in the family plot in the Arundel Cemetery in Kennebunkport. Discussions ensued. We accepted. I honestly didn’t think it mattered to me what happened to my remains, even though I’m such a fan of picking over the remnants of other peoples’ stories. But, I am astonished by how settled this decision makes me feel. I guess I’m not as immune to wanting some part of my existence to be remembered after I go to the fossil farm as I thought I was.
Now, to figure out what to put on the stone for maximum mystery and puzzlement….

Any suggestions?


Mike Crawford said...

I really enjoyed this post, having also had a life-long love of cemeteries.
As a child, I was taken through a large cemetery weekly by my Mother to reach the children's library.
En route was a huge (to me) stone sword with a metal sword rivetted to it, a gravestone with an enamel photograph of a handsome Italian man with a huge moustache and a small mausoleum of some type which I longed to see inside....Mum called it 'The Tardis.'

Nowadays in Aberdeen, I've often used the St Nicholas Cemetery to photograph my subjects as there is a quality of light there different from anywhere else I know.

As for a suggestion, Spike Millican's headstone reads "I told you I was ill" although written in Gaelic.

Michelle said...

Thanks, Mike!

I know what you mean about the quality of light. Monhegan Island is like that. A few special places in the world have it. We're lucky to each have found at least one.

Norcali Sheila said...

A wonderful jaunt through cemetery and memory, a more common ground than one might think! We used to go sledding at the Holy Cross Cemetery in suburban Philly,the screams and laughter must have pleased those "resting" there...the place is huge,the plots were roomy. When my mother died we discovered there were still a few slots left, it was an "8 pack" owned by my paternal great grandmother, and my paternal grandfather was not allowed "in", he was a Quaker and his remains could not taint the baptized Catholics. Not sure if the racial card trumped the religion card...I will pass on your story about the silver dollar search mission...maybe some neighborhood Dad could send kids searching for a sneaky infidel!?