Weekly Photo Challenge: On Top

The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium

The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium

I went to a funeral last week in one of the most beautiful places in San Francisco.  I’ve written about the columbarium before — I’ve visited it many times — but this was the first time I’ve been there for the purpose for which it was intended.

The dead man was the husband of a friend of mine, father to a daughter the same age as my own.  I didn’t know him well, but I love his wife, so I went to the celebration of his life.  It was perfect:  a slide show, a board with stories from his life, cards made by his daughter’s classmates, a table with portrait photos of him and the urn with his ashes.

Their daughter came over to say hi.  I told her my daughter sent her love. Then I asked, “Are you on spring break this week?”

“No,” she said.  “I’m skipping school today.”

I could tell she was troubled by the forbidden aspect of it, so I said gently, “I think you have a good reason.”

Her face froze and she nodded, then dodged off before I could apologize. Oh, well done, I thought.  You made a child cry at her father’s funeral.  I tried to imagine anything I might have said that wouldn’t have reminded her of her loss, but I came up blank.

Remembering my brother’s funeral, almost 12 years ago now, and how I could barely speak for grief, I forgave myself, because really there are no magic words that make the loss stop hurting.  There is no making it better.  The person you love is gone forever and your love has nowhere to go, so it turns on you and hurts you.  All you can do is keep going on, treasuring your memories and slowly, slowly, let your loved one go.

For all that I write about graveyards and their denizens, I haven’t found any wisdom with which to comfort others.  We die, but life goes on.  This young girl will grow up, fall in love, travel, find work, live a rich and full life, but she has lost something she will never get back:  her innocence, her sense of security, her daddy’s love.  Around her, the Columbarium was filled with beauty and fascinating stories.  Outside, the day was perfect: a flawless blue sky, 65 degrees, green grass, bright sun, birdsong.  I’m sure she didn’t even see that.

I walked back to my car, inarticulate with emotion.  I hadn’t lost anything today, but I could see the future so clearly:  the deaths of my parents, my friends, maybe my husband although he’s sworn never to die.  I have been lucky to have only lost my brother and my grandparents so far.  I think growing up is not buying a house, or having a child, or pursuing a career.  For me, it means learning to face all the loss to come.

I have so much to learn.

After I went to the service, I found this link on twitter.  It’s advice on how to support someone who is grieving.  I think I will turn to it often as my friend survives her loss.

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Cemetery of the Week #132: Rock Creek Cemetery

The beautiful entry gate to Rock Creek Cemetery

The beautiful entry gate to Rock Creek Cemetery

Rock Creek Cemetery
201 Allison St NW, Washington, DC 20011
Telephone: (202) 726-2080
Founded: 1719
Size: 86 acres
Numbers of interments: 13,000 interments or more
Open: Open daily, including holidays, from 8 am to 6 pm. The office is open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm.
GPS coordinates for the Adams Memorial: 38° 56’ 55” N 77° 0’ 32” W

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, began in 1712 as a mission church. It is the only surviving colonial church in what is now Washington, DC. According to the church’s website, “The cemetery’s beautiful, park-like setting is now a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world, who come to see the remarkable variety of monuments and sculpture and often to visit the renowned Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.”

In September 1719, vestryman Colonel John Bradford donated 100 acres for the support of the church, which determined the site of the chapel. The land was logged, then farmed, and the proceeds supported the church for many years. Almost from the start, though, the area directly surrounding the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners. Some of those old grave markers still survive.

View of the goldfish pond

View of the goldfish pond

In the 1830s, the church decided to expand the area it used for burials and convert its land from farming to a public graveyard. Inspired by the success of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they utilized the natural rolling landscape when they laid out the roads like a rural cemetery. An Act of Congress established Rock Creek Cemetery as a burial ground for the city of Washington.

In the early 20th century, the church sold 14 acres of their graveyard for the construction of New Hampshire Avenue.

The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

The memorial that everyone comes to see belongs to Henry Brooks Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the US, and great-grandson of John Adams, the second president. Henry Brooks Adams himself was a Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. His autobiography won a Pulitzer Prize, but his considered The History of the United States of America 1801 to 1817 to be his masterwork. After his wife Marian (called Clover) committed suicide by poisoning herself with photographic chemicals in DC, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a monument to her. The statue is commonly referred to as Grief, but Saint-Gaudens called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.

I assumed that a world-famous memorial might be easy to locate, but since we visited on a Sunday, the office was closed. Church had let out for the day, save for choir practice, which I didn’t want to interrupt. After wandering for an hour – and admiring lots of lovely sculpture – we turned to the internet. The photo I found on Findagrave showed the memorial on a hill, facing away from the slope. We couldn’t find that view anywhere. The first GPS coordinates my husband Mason found led us back to the cemetery gate. Eventually we were able to find a map of the cemetery online that included section designations. The Adams Memorial is in section E.

The Adams Memorial's cypress are in the distance here.

The Adams Memorial’s cypress are in the distance here.

After you enter the cemetery, head toward the church. Before you reach it, turn right. Down slope from you, you will see a family plot encircled by a hedge of cypress trees. You have to walk through the hedge to find the statue.

The cemetery has a wealth of lovely sculpture. These include Rabboni by Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mount Rushmore) on the grave of Charles M. Ffoulkes, a Washington banker who collected tapestries; The Seven Ages of Memory by William Ordway Partridge, on the grave of Samuel H. Kauffman, who owned the Washington Star; and Brenda Putnam’s statue of a child on Anna Simon’s grave. There are many, many more worth seeing.

Detail of the Seven Ages of Memory

Detail of the Seven Ages of Memory

Other famous burials include Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, Charles Francis Jenkins, the inventor of television; Abraham Baldwin, a signer of the Constitution; Charles Corby, the creator of Wonder Bread; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society; two mayors of Washington, three Union Army generals, and four Supreme Court Justices. There are also a number of family members of famous people: the father of Alexander Graham Bell, the grandfather of Douglas MacArthur, the sister of Edgar Allan Poe, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.

My family took the metro to Fort Totten and then walked through the little park past the police station to North Capitol Street. That takes you to the back of the cemetery. One of the gates on North Capitol Street is open on Sunday mornings, when church is in session. Otherwise, you have to walk around to where Rock Creek Church Road meets Webster to find an open gate. It’s a hike and there are no facilities when the office is closed.  You might be better off to rent a car.

The Fort Totten/Michigan Park neighborhood seems to be reasonably safe. People on Street Advisor warn against petty crime and robbery, but we walked all over without any trouble.

Useful links:

Rock Creek Cemetery homepage

The National Park Service’s page on Rock Creek Cemetery

A Huffington Post feature on the cemetery

Cemetery history

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Adventures in Cemetery Travel

This is reblogged from the Western Legends Publishing blog, where it appeared almost two weeks ago.  I’ve been traveling and blogging from my phone was much more difficult than I expected.  This will be a new Cemetery of the Week tomorrow, though, so tune in again!

Adventures in Cemetery Travel

Click to order!

How did I pick all those cemeteries I visited in Wish You Were Here? That’s a funny story…

I visited the first cemetery by accident. I found a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. That was toward the end of our unexpected stay in England, but my husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. It was the right choice.

We’d already planned to work Pere Lachaise Cemetery into our trip to Paris, because Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and so many other famous people were buried there. I’d found a cemetery guidebook (my first!) calledPermanent Parisians in the Rand McNally store in San Francisco. That book also led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary, but I wasn’t such a geek yet that we saw a single graveyard when we visited Amsterdam that same trip.

For a while after that, I simply stumbled on cemeteries. My mom saw the sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking for the anthropology museum. Jack London just happened to be buried at the State Historical Park that bears his name. A friend was touring St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans and encouraged me to come along.

Other places had such an impact on history that I wanted to see them for myself. When Mason and I went to Japan for the first time, I wanted to go out of our way to see Hiroshima and the Peace Park. When my mom took me to Honolulu, I went alone by tour bus on Easter morning to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. I ducked out of a family trip to Washington DC to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

Then I started to get a reputation. Japanese friends took us to the old capitol of Kamakura to show me a monks’ graveyard. A friend who’d grown up in Westchester County said I shouldn’t miss the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. Other friends gave us a private tour of the Soldiers National Cemetery and battlefield at Gettysburg.

By the time Mason and I went to Italy in 2001, we were building our vacations around cemeteries. In Rome, I targeted the Protestant Cemetery, final home of Keats and Shelley. In Venice, I wanted to see the island set aside as a graveyard, where Stravinsky is buried. Strangely enough, my goal in Florence was La Specola, the jaw-dropping medical museum — but we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. It had the most amazing iconography. Oh, and we discovered that the roads into the archaeological site at Pompeii are lined with tombs, although that story didn’t make it into Wish You Were Here.

Graveyards are everywhere you go. Next time you travel, take a look.

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Cemetery as garden and vice versa

Gardens and Graveyards of the Southeastern Seaboard: A Photographic JourneyGardens and Graveyards of the Southeastern Seaboard: A Photographic Journey by Henry Clay Childs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The lure of silent places — gardens can be as tranquil as graveyards — leads each of us more easily to reflection and remembrance, revelation and joy.” That sentiment inspires this gorgeous full-color photo book. Every page is graced by a 7 x 9-inch photo, which reproduces a rainbow of greens and grays, highlighted with bright flowers.

On his travels between Popes Creek, Virginia and Cumberland Island, Georgia, Henry Clay Childs stopped off to visit the only unaltered American colonial church, graves of the earliest European settlers as well as George Washington’s ancestors, graveyards of villages abandoned after the Civil War, and the elegant cemeteries of Savannah.

Childs saw a graveyard anywhere dreams were buried and a garden wherever flowers bloomed, so there’s a great deal of fluidity in this definitions. This book will delight anyone who takes pleasure in beauty, whether they’ve previously been cemetery aficionados or not.

Even your mom might like these beautiful photographs.

These books are going for a song on Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Historic Bonaventure Cemetery

Historic Bonaventure Cemetery:: Photographs from the Collection of the Georgia Historical SocietyHistoric Bonaventure Cemetery:: Photographs from the Collection of the Georgia Historical Society by Historical Society Georgia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another in the series of books which collect historic photographs of America, Historic Bonaventure Cemetery, like Images of America: New Orleans Cemeteries, contains hundreds of black-and-white photographs, all concentrated on the lovely moss-draped graveyard in Savannah, Georgia.

Bonaventure began life as a plantation three miles east of downtown Savannah. During the American Revolution, the original owners backed the wrong side and were exiled when their lands were seized for treason. One of the sons bought the land back in 1785 and was eventually elected governor of Georgia. His wife and four infant children were buried on the plantation, where their graves survive today. In June 1868, the plantation was landscaped by a cemetery company in the style of the picturesque northern garden cemeteries—accent, here, on garden.

The book’s illustrations are primarily drawn from the collection of the Georgia Historical Society, augmented with the authors’ modern photos. Some of my favorite images are the picture postcards so common from the Victorian era. Unfortunately, the writing on the backs of the cards is not reproduced; I missed being able to read, “Visited this cemetery, thought of you, wish you were here, etc.” In the spirit of souvenirs are the stereopticon cards (here represented by a single photo) of corseted young women seated along the roadside, awaiting their carriage home, or the picnickers seated before the tombstone over which they’ve flung a blanket—so not to be troubled in the graveyard by the ominous reminder of mortality?

In fact, for a book about a cemetery, Historic Bonaventure Cemetery stints on the photos of monuments. There are some beauts: the angel cradling the scallop shell birdbath in her arms, the exquisite floral wreath executed in marble by an Italian craftsman, the life-sized sculpture of Little Gracie with her nautical dress and button boots. I would have preferred if the book had showcased more of these artworks and fewer vistas of moss-swathed trees. Still, I find I cannot be disappointed when faced with so much melancholy loveliness. If anything, Historic Bonaventure Cemetery makes me yearn to see the place for myself.

You can get your own copy of the book from Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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