Not Crazy About Halloween But I Am Mad for Cemeteries

IMG_0051Halloween does not thrill me beyond a smiling Jack-O-Lantern and a Butterfinger. The Shining still gives me nightmares after 30 years and my heart aches with empathy at the sound of Charlie Brown saying “I got a rock.” If I never see or hear of another zombie or vampire again it will be just fine with me. But I love cemeteries and I visit them all the time.

Growing up, we used to go to the  cemetery with our Dad to visit the family plot. A beautiful spot overlooking the Cedar River, Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, hasn’t even a whiff of Halloween spookiness to it, at least not for me. It is twentieth century tidy: groomed, pretty linear with elegant but largely unremarkable gravestones, and those fabulous old growth trees that are probably the real reason I love all cemeteries so much. The trees stand like guardian angels. Under their branches is a sanctuary for the living among the dead.

So today is Halloween and earlier this week a blanket of fog curled around our old New England cemetery and this one is made to order for All Hallows Eve. Thus, I am compelled to chronicle my early morning walk among the long departed.

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The morning sun, masquerading as a rising moon, kisses the tops of an 18th century family plot. When I see stones like this so identical and lines up so perfectly I always wonder who designed it and whether they ordered them made all at once. My great grandfather was an undertaker back in Newton, Iowa, but I am woefully uneducated about cemetery protocol. I see research in my future.

IMG_0100This family’s plot didn’t account for nearby trees upsetting their row of markers – not only are they out of line, one grave has only the base left. And this causes me to think that, in the digital age, for some people it’s entirely possible that markers such as these might be the only tangible thing we leave behind.

IMG_0072And then I look up and see that this baby, gone for over 100 years now, is no known to me because I walked by on this day. I am always touched by the nameless children who are so lovingly remembered by their families. Some people – okay, a lot of people – think it’s morbid to visit and speculate in this way but I am intrigued comforted by the directness with which previous generations faced and commemorated death. These days it seems like people will do anything to avoid acknowledging the inevitable. I am grateful for the people in my life – yes, Irish – who are unflinching and (sometimes) celebratory in facing death. I don’t always share the revelry but I deeply appreciate the sentiment and faith that unpin it.

IMG_0118Above, conjoined on the left if you can see it, is something you don’t encounter as often in more modern cemeteries: the roles take precedence over the names. We know that mother and father rest here, but their given names are long obscured by time and weather. It’s also often true that the flags of soldiers are affixed to the telltale star-shaped holders but the names are no longer legible: all we know is that they served.

IMG_0109And then there are the various lines of demarcation between family plots. Chains certainly send an interesting message from the hereafter; there will be no fraternizing with others ghosts for these folks. I would love to eavesdrop on the conversations and circumstances that led to the placement of these chains. There’s a story here for sure.

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I always mean to look up the science behind the stone itself – why is it that Martha Pierce’s 1848 stone is so legible while others that are centuries newer have been wiped clean by the elements? I love everything about this – the color, the use of type, the spacing, even the weathering, it’s all perfect.

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Space is at a premium in the oldest cemeteries (though this town has one that is even older than this, aptly named The Old Burying Ground), and some folks bought space near the storage house. It all adds to the charm, and probably the politics, too.

IMG_0080Finally, there are the colors – the leaves and mosses and vines – and how they complement and define the incredible shapes that show the styles and workmanship of centuries. Modern public spaces value uniformity but history is random and people are finicky even in death (or maybe especially in death). They had one more chance to make their mark, and most of them made it count.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur parents are buried in a National Cemetery in the Midwest and when I visit, the rows of white stones take my breath away with their undulating precision. But then, for a moment, I’m not sure I’m even in the right section and we are lost to each other until I can make their names out and know that I am in the right place after all. There is comfort in knowing their engravings won’t be wiped away and that the whole area will be well-tended, but it makes me all the more determined to remember them in other ways. I am reminded as I look through the photographs that “mother” and “grandmother” are engraved under Mom’s name – I had forgotten that.

I am too far away to make the weekly pilgrimages my father made to his family and I wish now I knew what he was thinking on those days when we looked down at the river, but I know that even though I am walking among strangers, they are both with me (and laughing).

 

Another Glimmer of the Gilded Age, and then some

The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.

And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.

I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).

 

The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.

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