Wandering the graveyard

Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.

I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?

I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.

How must have life, and death, felt like then?

Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.

Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.

How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.

Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.

It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.

Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.

My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.

If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.

I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.

My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.

Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?


40 thoughts on “Wandering the graveyard

  1. Yes, I do, sometimes. They’re usually very beautiful, with great old trees and well-maintained lawns. Wandering the lanes and old mausoleums is like peeping through the window to other times – the dusty, depopulated history of books somehow becomes populated again with the stories of the Marjories, the Agneses and Janes, the babies and all those adventurous men and women who pioneered our communities. I love that.

    1. They were pioneers indeed. In Vermont, one passes houses still in use from the 19th and 18th century and I wonder who lived there. I recently bought a beautiful old mixing bowl and wonder who used it.

  2. I do visit them, especially when I travel. I am fascinated by the brief biographies on headstones and for a writer, they’re a great source of both names and material. I also enjoy taking pictures of unique headstones; the craftsmanship, particularly of those that are hand-carved, is incredible.

  3. I don’t so much where I live now, but in New Mexico it’s hard to pass them by without stopping. So much history there. The best one I’ve ever seen is the one in Madrid. One side is all the old families from mining days and the other side is all hippie graves. They have so much personality!

      1. I was trying to answer your previous comment and will attempt it again… I will try to put up a review on Amazon, although reviews aren’t really my strong point!

  4. There is a morbid draw towards gravestones. Here in Scotland there are many old ones – ‘died in infancy’ is all too commonplace – and I can’t help but notice ones where the deceased died at my own age and feel gratitude that we are in an age of greater mortality rates. I also like the graphic elements – the symbols denoting trade or circumstance.

    1. It’s true there seems to be much more art on some of them than we see today. It was shocking to me be reminded how terribly dangerous childbirth was, and still is for many women today in developing nations (and parts of the U.S.)

  5. Don

    I’ve always been fascinated by the Bronte sisters and had the wonderful opportunity to visit Haworth, the village they lived in in the North of England. While there I also took a walk through the cemetery and experienced exactly what you did. I was absolutely amazed by the number of young women and children buried there. So profoundly tragic when you think of where we are today in our abilities to bring healing. It is so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. These kind of reminders do two things for me – they awaken compassion for the past and a sense of gratitude for the present. There’s nothing like a cemetery just to remind us of our immortality. It kind of puts us in our place in the scheme of things, especially when our egos run wild. Thanks for a great post.

  6. crgardenjoe

    Often, local legends grow around graveyards. There was one in Muscatine, Iowa, where I went through high school, that had a “blue angel” statue that supposedly foretold your doom if you saw it move. Anyway, cemeteries are often peaceful, pretty places. There is one near my wife’s family farm in northern Jefferson County that has a 19th Century life-and-death twist–most of the graves are of settlers moving west who died there unexpectedly due to some communicable disease which struck their group. On a recent trip to visit my daughter in Norwich, England, some of our more pleasant walks were through a cemetery near her home. It is always startling to think of these past lives and to note patterns, as you did, that speak of how hard life was recently–and still is in many parts of the world … yes, I often mind myself wandering through graveyards. They are not spooky at all–indeed, they are among the most peaceful, contemplative places around.

    1. I have a connection to Muscatine (!); my first NYC magazine job was for World Press Review, which was supported for years by the Stanley Foundation, located there.

      “they are among the most peaceful, contemplative places around.” So true. There seem to be fewer and fewer of these, certainly anywhere near a city.

  7. I especially enjoy visiting graveyards where I have no connection. The ones where I have a connection are just a little more sad. I find the stones fascinating. The newer ones too.
    I like the peace and quiet.
    When I was a kid my family took a trip out to Grand Lake in New Brunswick where my great-grandparents are buried. My dad took photos of us standing next to their gravestones. I’ve always thought that was a little weird.

  8. My wife and I often wander old cemeteries, and for much the same reasons that you do – it’s a great way of getting a feel for history – for some of the stories of the people. We also make a deliberate effort to find the graves of people who I’ve written about in some of my history books – which for me adds a dimension to the experience of researching and writing.

  9. It’s very hard as you mentioned to focus on anything but the present some times, let alone look backwards. I enjoy wandering graveyards from time to time and wondering about peoples lives. I may romaticize things but I know most people were just living normal lives like me or possibly had it harder back then. Good read, thanks.

      1. Yes, I agree about the intimacy factor, especially as the world becomes increasingly globalized. While harder, I think there was a simplicity about their lives, as Thoreau talks about that we definitely lack in our 24/7 connected world.

      2. I’m not sure I’d romanticize it. While I agree we’re bombarded with tech and junk, we also have antibiotics and really good general anesthesia! And women have the vote…:-) And slavery is (in the U.S.) legally over. What a different worldview indeed.

  10. Another wonderful post. I too visit graveyards. As others have said, graveyards somehow take us away from the present. So they’re contemplative places, morbid, yes, but also serene, because of all that stillness. Stillness and sobering – all that perspective. And as you pointed out in the post, graveyards can be very beautiful. Sheesh, I might even visit one this weekend – there’s a ripper just up the road! (PS I said ‘ripper’, not ‘reaper’.)

  11. Glad you enjoyed it. I wondered if this post would prove popular….much more than I’d thought. I sometimes think random blog posts hit on issues many of us are passionate about but which rarely arise spontaneously in conversation.

  12. I find cemeteries relaxing on a deep level … all of them have something to offer … History, lives past and sometimes terrible and senseless waste.

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