Death’s Garden: In the Dark

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Marilyn’s lipstick-pink marble

by Loren Rhoads

The sky burned with gold as we rounded the block again.  The Thomas Guide wasn’t helping at all.  None of the buildings seemed to be numbered.  I was ready to give up.  I considered suggesting we ditch the graveyard altogether and see about getting up to Griffith Observatory in time to catch the afterglow, but it was probably too late in the afternoon for that.  I had no idea where we were in the greater Los Angeles area.

Anyway, Brian was determined to show me a graveyard I hadn’t seen before.  He’d been there once, years ago, but hadn’t been driving.  All he remembered was standing amongst the graves and feeling boxed in by skyscrapers.  He didn’t remember which skyscrapers.  “That’s why they always shoot movies from the opposite angle,” he explained, “so you don’t see the buildings looming over you.”

The car was full of tense silence.  Brian had already apologized so profusely for getting lost that I couldn’t get mad.  The response had been short-circuited.  Now he was absolutely determined to find the place. I kept thinking about that James Van Pelt story in After Shocks where the couple is trapped in their car in LA as a metaphor for Hell.

Finally on the umpteenth pass by Glendon on Wilshire, I spied a little white sign at eye level between the skyscrapers.  “I think that’s it!” I crowed.

We circled the long block once more, passing the Westwood Presbyterian Church, the private school with the mysteriously painted mural, back through the neighborhood with the immaculate white houses and bright green grass.

We turned right onto Glendon again.  “Slowly,” I cautioned.  “I think it’s just past the pink building.”

Brian snapped, “Past the pink building is Wilshire.”

“No, there’s an alley…”

We were on top of the turn before I could see the little white sign for the Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park.  They certainly didn’t want to draw attention to the graveyard in the center of the block.

The sign directed us down the alley toward a uniformed guy in a little lighted booth.  Apparently he was there to sell parking for the movie theaters nearby.  He didn’t motion for us to stop.

Another right turn and the graveyard resolved ahead of us.  It was a tiny one.  An open mausoleum took up the east side.  In the northeast corner stood a little round chapel, which the map said would be locked.  On the north, a solid wall of office towers rose behind the cemetery walls.

Brian pulled his car over and we got out.  He started to lead me toward the southeast corner, which they had torn up for new construction.  I glanced down at the Map to the Stars’ Bones clutched in my hand.

“I think we’re going the wrong way.”  I turned around 180 degrees and oriented the map.  “She’s in that corner over there.”

In fact, from where we were standing, you could pick out her slot in the “Corridor of Memories.” A large bouquet of red and white rosebuds adorned the vase on the marble slab.  As we drew near, I nearly tripped over a pot of purple heather on the cement floor beneath her marker.  I reached out to touch the brass lettering.  It said simply “Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962.”

For someone whose legend exploded after her death, the humble monument seemed almost insulting.  I mean, I’d known in advance that she didn’t have a grand memorial like Douglas Fairbanks’ reflecting pool or Al Jolson’s three-story waterfall, but this — the bare marble without even an epitaph…

“Do you know who the blank one beside her is for?” Brian asked.

“Hugh Hefner.”  I’d read somewhere that he’d paid an exorbitant bribe to be buried next to her.

There weren’t really words I wanted to say.  I liked the movies of hers that I’d seen, but hadn’t troubled to track down the rest.  She was dead before I was born.  I felt no connection to her, other than sadness for someone who never found whatever it was she needed to live.

A fan club had dedicated a little marble bench nearby to her memory, so visitors would have a place to sit to commune with her.  Permanent Californians said Marilyn’s was the most visited grave in Los Angeles.  Hard to believe, after all the hour and a half of driving around it took us to find it.

The security guard strode toward us, so we turned away from Marilyn’s grave.  The map said that the cemetery was open until 7:30 year ‘round, but this January night was going to be pitch black long before then.

“Do we have to leave?” I asked.

“No, we don’t lock up ‘til 6,” the guard said affably.

“Are you allowed to tell us where anyone is buried?” Brian asked.

“I don’t actually know,” the guard answered.  “This is only the second time I’ve been in here.”

He rounded the low boxwood hedge behind us and stopped in front of Marilyn’s marker.

“I’d like to find Darryl Zanuck,” Brian told me.  Zanuck founded 20th Century Fox, where Brian worked.

I located Zanuck on the map.  As we walked across the lawn, I read off the other famous names buried here:  Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne from Poltergeist, Truman Capote, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Eva Gabor, and Frank Zappa. There were others listed that I didn’t recognize.

Only a luminous rosy glow remained overhead as we crossed the shadowy grass.  Brian bent to examine an inset plaque. The epitaph remembered one of the greatest Iranian singers ever.  Although she’d been dead eleven years, potted plants completely encircled the marker.

“Is this the anniversary of her death?” I wondered.

Brian consulted the plaque again and said, “No.”

Night was falling so fast that we didn’t have time to explore.  According to the map, Zanuck was buried under one of the trees.  Brian and I spread out to search the rows of plaques.

I got distracted when an Iranian man climbed out of a car parked in front of the office, a low building in the southwest corner of the graveyard.  He carried a potted plant over to a grave already outlined with low houseplants.  When he knelt at the foot of the grave to make his offering, I turned away to give him some privacy.

It grew too dark under the trees for me to read the dark plaques set into the black grass.  I found a bench beneath a towering chestnut tree and sat down.  The cement was chilly through my jeans, so I huddled into my leather jacket.  The tip of my nose was cold, but the hand with which I’d been holding the map was colder.

A scant handful of graves had vigil candles burning, flickering like stars in the grass.  Overhead, Venus burned like an icy diamond in the deep turquoise sky.  A silver rind of moon hung nearby.  If I wasn’t careful where I looked, the glare of the streetlights outside the graveyard burned away my night vision.  It took time for my eyes to readjust.

I watched Brian’s silhouette walking a grid amongst the graves.  I marveled that he could see anything.  I had a mini maglite, but it was in my backpack in the car.  Besides, I felt like if it was too dark to read markers without a flashlight, it was too late to read them.

I leaned back against the tree and wondered why I hadn’t heard birdsong as the sun set.  The trees around the cemetery seemed inviting enough.  I’d heard mockingbirds and seen robins already in San Francisco.  I knew the spring migration had already started.  Strange.

It was peaceful in the graveyard.  I listened to the rush of cars going by on Wilshire, the sound of life in the city.  It’d been a long time since I’d been in a cemetery at night.  I felt very safe, knowing that the security guard would be back to throw us out before too long.

A big boxy Lincoln pulled up behind Brian’s Pulsar.  An older couple struggled out of it.  They rattled keys, wielding a flashlight as they let themselves into the locked “Room of Prayer” chapel in the corner near Marilyn.  I wondered what they planned to do in there after dark.

 

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited, Famous person's grave | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Death’s Garden: A Tale of 25,000 Tales

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Tour photos of Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery by M. Parfitt.

by M. Parfitt

It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning and I’m getting dressed. First, the stockings and shoes. Yep, shoes first. Then the voluminous hoop skirt, 150 inches in circumference, followed by the pillowy little bustle, then the dress skirt. Next, the bodice with its three-layer sleeves. Finally, the bonnet and gloves. Now I’m dressed and ready to step out into 1860. I’ll admit I’m cheating: there’s no uncomfortable corset holding me tight under that bodice. And I won’t be riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to my volunteer job today. I’ll catch the bus across the street from Home Depot, then I’ll transfer to a light rail train.

Along the way, drivers, pedestrians, and bus riders will stare, wave, and point. The brave ones will actually talk to me. My favorite question is, “Are you Amish?”

I’m not Amish. I’m a volunteer tour guide at Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery. I traipse around in my Civil War-era mourning dress, leading visitors from one tragic tale to the next, exposing the secrets Sacramento’s early residents took to their graves. Some of those secrets now feel like they’re my stories. Over the last five years, I’ve told the tales of nearly fifty “residents” of the cemetery. Some of these people performed heroic deeds; others died tragically. Some died in ridiculous circumstances that could peg them as Darwin Award winners. I’ve researched, rehearsed, “performed,” and internalized the stories of their lives (and deaths). I feel like I know these people. That sometimes makes it difficult to tell their stories without a pang of guilt.

10577091_10152290892596452_545556492729661978_nWould Emily York really want people to know she accidentally set herself on fire in the same manner as a woman who accidentally set herself on fire only one week before? Didn’t she read the newspaper? Didn’t she learn from the other woman’s fatal mistake?

How would A. P. Smith feel if he knew I was telling his riches-to-rags tale over and over? The ending is always the same. The master horticulturist lost his vast, beautiful garden to a flood. His white Victorian mansion, his acres of fruit trees and flower gardens — everything he’d tended and cared for — washed away. He died old and broken in a small shack.

And Daisy Dias, whose story I cannot tell without choking up: How can you calmly describe the death of a seven-year-old in a pit of red-hot ashes? She died a hundred years ago, but her story is no less horrifying today.

11754412_10153072363286452_729999009092471518_oI wish I could change the endings for these people, but I’m telling true stories. Each tour features an average of twelve tales of sorrow or bravery or foolishness, and I tell ’em as I find ’em. Hours of research — mostly in online newspaper repositories — brings long-forgotten events back to life, for better or worse.

That’s really what this is about: bringing the past back to life. The cemetery’s tongue-in-cheek motto is “Where history comes alive.” I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, so resurrecting the stories of Sacramento’s early residents is my way of bringing them back to life and sharing them with others so they’ll be remembered.

11205528_10153030609241452_7402202906627997120_nThe cemetery’s tour season runs from February through November, with at least one Saturday-morning history tour each month. Every December, the Tour Commitee (a loose-knit group of tour guides) meets to hash out the following year’s tour topics and schedule. With over 25,000 “residents,” the topics seem endless and we never have to repeat a story. We’ve held tours about women, African Americans, brewers, baseball players, labor history, disasters, trains, headstone carvers, horse breeders and riders, politicians, drugs in the old west, temperance and prohibition, veterans. The list goes on and on. Oh, and we occasionally do repeat a story. Some stories are just that good.

I attend nearly every tour throughout the season. My main task is to take photos for the cemetery’s Facebook page. On those days, I wear jeans and a souvenir Historic City Cemetery t-shirt. Several times a year, however, I arrive early in my big black dress, hang out in the visitors’ center, rehearse, and wait for showtime. The clock strikes ten, and off we go. I never know what to expect when I step out of the visitors’ center with my headset microphone and portable amplifier. A small group of ten or twelve visitors is disappointing; a crowd of eighty is thrilling. I’m one of those crazies who loves public speaking. The more folks I can speak to, the better.

11052460_10152884661446452_7177891324845766836_nMost tours are conducted by a lead tour guide and a “helper” guide. Occasionally, a few other guides pitch in to tell a story or two. I’ve developed a good working relationship with Jean, a guide who’s smart and dependable and who obsesses over telling a good story, the same way I do. We’ve come up with a winner of a topic, and we’ve decided we’ll keep offering it every year as long as people are willing to show up for it. The topic? “A Dozen Ways to Die.” With so many thousands of stories, we figure we can keep going for close to 900 years without repeating a story.

I’m the lead tour guide by default. Jean doesn’t like to wear historic costumes and my dress attracts attention, so I do the introduction and conclusion. We’re actually equals, since we each tell six stories. After the twelfth story, when the audience expects us to thank them and send them away, we instead agonize over whether this audience has been really, really good — and therefore deserves a bonus story! So far, we’ve always decided to give it to them. Sometimes one of us tells the thirteenth story; other times another guide tells it. Having a third guide on hand is becoming increasingly important for this tour, because the crowd it draws seems to get bigger every year.

“A Dozen Ways to Die” is such a wide-open topic that each year brings new surprises. A friend once e-mailed me a yellowed newspaper clipping about her great-grandfather’s death, and asked if we’d ever told his story. We’d never heard of it! The following summer, Peter Beardslee’s fatal wagon-and-train collision made it into the tour, and my friend and her mother were there to hear it. When I introduced them as Peter’s descendants, the crowd broke into applause, which delighted me.

People like to complain about crime these days, kids these days, danger these days, and all the other problems we experience “these days.” I tell them to come to a cemetery tour. Nothing has changed, folks. A downtown park with a reputation as a hangout for transients and shady characters is no worse now than it was in the 1870s, when a pregnant woman shot her no-good boyfriend to death following a band concert, or the 1890s, when a gullible young man was tricked into shooting an innocent man who appeared to be arguing with a woman.

People died in workplace accidents, they died in house fires, and they died at the hands of jealous lovers. Despondent people committed suicide in a variety of shocking ways: by gunshot, by poison, even by drinking creosote. By telling their stories, I hope I can dispel the myth that “the good old days” were a time of innocence, peacefulness, respect, and integrity. People were just as petty, careless, irrational, and unfortunate as they are today.

11665418_10153030609816452_1123057498260095013_nThe Tour Committee had its meeting last month. Jean and I need to start searching for this year’s Dozen. Often, while reading about a particular subject in an old newspaper, “shiny object syndrome” will hit — an unrelated article about another unfortunate person will jump out, and we’ll fall down the rabbit hole of endless research. Sometimes another guide will accidentally discover a good story this way, and pass it on to us.

Tour season starts with Sacramento Museum Day in February. I love Museum Day. We don’t schedule tours; we just wait at the front gates for visitors to show up, then we take them on abbreviated, unrehearsed tours that could feature anything from Mark Hopkins’ massive red-granite vault to Georgia Fisher’s sadly vandalized headstone. It’s a good way for tour guides to get back into the swing of things after a few months off, and it’s always fun to introduce the cemetery to people who had no idea we offered tours until they read about it in the Museum Day flyer.

My hope is that some of these newcomers will return for a tour, get hooked, and become “regulars.” One of our regulars travels all the way from Marysville every month. Bringing history alive for our visitors, both newcomers and regulars, is my job, and I take it seriously. Bringing back the stories of people whose lives have slipped into oblivion is my passion. I enjoy it tremendously.

I love being a cemetery tour guide. Maybe one of these days, I’ll make that sacrifice to comfort and wear a corset. Until then, I’ll continue to float among the headstones in my billowing hoop skirt, in search of the next fascinating story.

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Photo by Lori Mattas.

M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings.  You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse.  Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.  

Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.

 

 

 

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery event, Death's Garden Revisited, Facebook Cemetery Group | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Morbid Curiosity Book Club selection

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Tomorrow — Wednesday, January 27, 2016 — my book of cemetery travel essays will be the topic of discussion at the Morbid Curiosity Book Club in Toronto.  The club meets at the BAKA Cafe Gallery Lounge on 2256 Bloor St West, Toronto, Ontario (map) at 7:30 PM.

Organizer Alma Sinan, a longtime member of the Association for Gravestone Studies, describes the group as “a different sort of book club, for those of us who are interested in cemeteries, gravestones, mourning customs, and death and dying.”

She encourages guests to join them for coffee and conversation. The cost is free, but Alma asks that you purchase something from the cafe in appreciation for them allowing us to host the meeting there.

You can link up with the Book Club and check out their upcoming selections on Meetup.com.

I’m so honored by this!  This is the second time Wish You Were Here has been chosen as a book club selection.  I love the idea that my work inspires people to talk about cemeteries.

If you’re nowhere near Toronto, you can still read along with the book club. Here’s a description of Wish You Were Here:

Almost every tourist destination has a graveyard. You go to Yosemite National Park: there’s a graveyard. You go to Maui: graveyards everywhere you look. The Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park: both graveyards. The number one tourist destination in Michigan has three cemeteries. America’s best-preserved Gold Rush ghost town has five. Gettysburg is a National Park because it has a graveyard. Some graveyards are even tourist destinations in themselves: the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague, the colonial burying grounds of Boston, and Kennedy’s eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery. Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery ranks in the top five tourist sites of Paris.

Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel contains 35 graveyard travel essays, which visit more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and grave sites across the globe.

Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel is available from Amazon or CreateSpace. Autographed and inscribed copies can be ordered directly from me through my bookshop.

 

Posted in Cemetery event, Good cemetery news, Wish You Were Here | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Death’s Garden: Westminster Church

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Poe’s monument, as photographed by R. Samuel Klatchko

by E. A. Black

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and Edgar Allan Poe has always been my favorite writer. When I was 17 and a junior in high school back in the 1970s, my social studies teacher gave my class the assignment of writing about a famous American. I didn’t want to merely crack open a book and write an essay about Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abe Lincoln, or Ernest Hemingway. I craved adventure. Since I lived near Westminster Church in Baltimore, where Poe was buried, I figured why write a boring report when I could turn my essay into a huge research project, complete with actual visits to Poe’s grave?

My mother drove me to the Poe House on Amity Street, where we were given the grand tour. The house was tiny and crowded. I imagined Poe, his 14-year-old wife and cousin Virginia Clemm, and his aunt and mother-in-law Maria Clemm singing around the piano in the living room. He doted on Virginia and took care of her when she became sick with tuberculosis. The disease eventually killed her. Although it can’t be proven, the Poe Society alleges Poe wrote about a dozen stories and poems while he lived in the house, including MS Found In A Bottle, Berenice, and Morella.

After visiting the house, we went to Westminster Presbyterian Church and graveyard. I was blown away at how massive the site was. The church itself was built in the Gothic Revival style, full of nooks, crannies, and spooky airs. The brick building had a slanted A-frame roof that loomed over me. A tall tower with four spires sat in the center of the building in the front. Tall arched Gothic windows graced all sides of the church. It was a spectacular structure, especially to an impressionable 17-year-old like myself.

While many notable Baltimoreans were buried in Westminster Cemetery, including mayors, U. S. Representatives, military personnel from the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and the son of Francis Scott Key (Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner), the only people who interested me were Poe and his wife. Poe’s monument, which is visible from the street, was massive. A bronze plaque with his facial image is on one side of the monument, along with his birth and death dates. He, his wife/cousin Virginia, and his aunt/mother-in-law are buried beneath it. I huddled around the grave with other guests on a cold fall Saturday afternoon. Jeff Jerome, the Poe House curator, told Poe’s story and the history of the grave.

Poe’s wife Virginia died in New York. Years later, when the cemetery she was buried in was destroyed, her remains were transferred from her resting space. According to legend, the sexton in the New York cemetery held Virginia’s bones on his shovel and was ready to toss them when Poe biographer William Gill claimed them. The story was that there was so little left of her body that her remains were placed in a box the size of a shoebox. Gill stored the box under his bed and later arranged for it to be sent to Baltimore. Her remains were buried with her husband’s on his birthday in 1885.

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Poe’s monument, as photographed by R. Samuel Klatchko

The monument is one of two gravestones of his on the site. The original one stands towards the back of Westminster Hall, marked with an engraved raven. That’s where Poe was originally buried. It’s a family plot, where his grandfather and brother are also buried. In 1875, a local school teacher raised money for a classier monument for the writer, a “Pennies For Poe” project. The result is the massive monument I saw first – the one visible from the street. Once it was completed, Poe’s body was transferred. Because of that project, it’s customary for visitors to leave pennies on the monument. When I visited, I left a penny. Of course I did. I wanted to be a part of history.

The interior of Westminster Hall, where the catacombs were located, was dark, and creepy. It smelled of damp earth. Full of gravestones and burial vaults, it was rather smothering. I had to bend over a little when I walked. I imagined men and women buried alive in those depths, like what Poe had written in his Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Good thing I didn’t have claustrophobia. The further into the crypts I walked, the more intense was the feeling of desolation and death. If there was ever an appropriate place to bury Edgar Allan Poe, this was it.

For 75 years, a mysterious man known as the Poe Toaster would visit the large monument on Poe’s birthday (January 19) and leave roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on the grave. Rumor stated that the tradition was handed down from the original Poe Toaster to his son. The curator of the Poe Museum allegedly knew the identity of the Poe Toaster, but never revealed who the man was. I’d heard that a small crowd would gather around Poe’s grave on his birthday, but when the Poe Toaster stopped by in the dead of night with his gifts, no one disturbed him. Sadly, I’ve never been to the cemetery on Poe’s birthday to witness this. The Poe Toaster stopped visiting in 2010. (Loren’s note:  a new Poe Toaster may have taken up the tradition.)

*

Halloween was always a fun time at the Westminster Church cemetery. I went to the holiday festivities the year I wrote my social studies essay. The assistant curator of the Poe House, whose name I can’t recall, bore a rather striking resemblance to the writer. He dressed up in 19th-century garb, pretending to be Poe, and read from Poe’s classic The Black Cat. I was entranced, a teenager with a love for horror in her element.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a man driven insane by his hatred for a black cat named Pluto. He kills the cat. One night when he was out drinking again, another black cat stumbled onto the scene. It looked remarkably like Pluto and his wife instantly took a liking to it. The man had been abusing her all along and his abuse escalated as the new cat made itself comfortable in their presence. Overcome by his loathing of the animal, he tried to kill it with an axe. When his wife tried to stop him, he buried the axe in her brain, killing her. He entombed her body in a space beneath the cellar wall. When the cops came around, he boasted about how well his house was built. He took them to the cellar and hit his cane against the wall in front of where he buried his wife. From behind the bricks came the sad and desperate sound of a cat mewling. When the police tore down the wall, they found the body of the man’s wife and the cat, disheveled but alive, on top of her head. The man had accidentally sealed the cat in the wall with his wife’s body. He was sent to jail and was hanged.

At the end of the assistant curator’s story, he pulled out a toy black cat and wrestled with it, complete with shrieking, startling everyone out of their wits. It was the best story reading I’d ever seen. It sure shook me up. I couldn’t stop laughing. I hadn’t had that much fun in years.

I’ve often driven past the church and caught glimpses of the Poe monument from the street. Although I have lived in New England for 20 years and I’ve seen many old and historic cemeteries, Westminster Church and Edgar Allan Poe’s grave remain the cemetery that made the biggest impression on me.

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elizabeth_blackE. A. Black has written dark fiction and horror for numerous publications including Zippered Flesh 2: More Tales Of Body Enhancements Gone Bad, Mirages: Tales From Authors Of The Macabre, Teeming Terrors, and Wicked Tales: The Journal Of The New England Horror Writers Vol. 3.

E. A. Black Amazon Author Page

E. A. Black blog and website

Elizabeth Black Facebook page

Elizabeth Black Twitter

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Death's Garden Revisited, Good cemetery news | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Death’s Garden: The Dead Dreaming

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Maple Hill’s gate, photographed by Billie Sue Mosiman.

by Billie Sue Mosiman

We lived in Helena, Arkansas and I was thirteen. In the summer, I’d make a sack lunch, take a book, hop on my bike, and ride off across the hills and ravines to the Civil War cemetery that draped across a hill. The old tombstones rose step by step up into thick woods. It was a well-kept place, with the pathways smooth dirt. The grassy areas where the graves resided were the green of emerald deep water.

Black cast-iron gates opened at the bottom of the hill and I would push my bike, lunch sack in the basket, up the path. I’d turn off into the smaller paths leading between the graves. I relished the pure peace emanating from this place. I’d been taught in school about the Civil War and here lay many of that war’s dead. Yet it wasn’t a sad place. I felt no unhappy spirits lingering. It felt more like a lovely park for imaginative children than a haunted arena of long-lost souls.

Later I discovered there had been a tremendous battle in Helena, with the Union in massive warships coming in their determined way down the Mississippi River to raid and conquer and the Confederates defending the city. Hundreds of tombstones lay on this long hill, testifying to the outcome.

I’d put aside my bike and walk slowly, softly, among the tombstones, curiously reading the names and dates of death. No one ever seemed to visit this historical cemetery. I was always alone and preferred it that way. I never felt threatened, worried, or afraid some male stranger might come by to whisk me into oblivion. It never crossed my mind, the way it would today.

I found peace in this ancient cemetery. I contemplated the battle these soldiers had fought, the pure bravery, misery, and insanity of it all. I’d run my hand over the rough, pitted stone of the angels and statues. After visiting with the dead, I’d return to my bike and get the book and the lunch. I’d find a shaded spot on the amazing grass and lean my back against a tombstone. Hours would pass as the sun skimmed over the surrounding forest: the tombstone shadows leaning, upright, then leaning again down toward twilight.

c1095b2e5866f239f0ef49a84c3c07f0[1]I went to this cemetery day after day, many times throughout that summer. No one came to intrude. I was not lonely or sad or afraid. It was peace I sought and peace I found. Birds sang and that’s all. No person traversed this place.

Through the summer, I began to feel it was my special, secret place, the only place I could find quiet and harmony. Every noon I’d eat my meager lunch: baloney sandwich and sometimes an apple or banana. I’d grow sleepy and doze a bit sitting up.

One day, a friend who lived down the street asked me where I went every day on my bike. “You don’t come back until almost dark,” she said.

I told her I’d take her there, my place, and show her. The next morning, we both rode off on our bikes. When I turned into the black gates with the toothy stones sticking up row after row on the hillside, my friend stopped abruptly at the gate. “This is a cemetery,” she said.

I told her I knew that, come on in, it wasn’t scary at all. She came slowly, following behind me. I showed her the marvelous pathways, the soft grass, the names and sayings and dates on the markers. None of the tombstones leaned. It was all as pristine and perfect as cookies laid out on a slanting platter.

“But what do you do here? It’s so empty.”

No, it was filled, I told her, absolutely crammed with people, but they were silent now and left me alone.

Her eyebrows rose. I knew then, if not before, that I might be an eccentric child. Today thirteen-year-old girls wear makeup and short tops and dance to music I don’t understand. In my thirteenth year, I was a child, a real child, a little girl. Yes, I was on the cusp of becoming woman, but not yet.

We nibbled on our lunches while I went on about how marvelous this place was. How silent and peaceful. How welcoming. I urged my friend to listen to the birdsong. I pointed to where the shadows grew and withdrew. I told her to listen, just listen, and wasn’t it the best silence she’d ever heard? No adults talking, no car horns, no radio music. It was pure here and clean and peace lay over it all. When here, I walked carefully not to step on a grave. I tried not to rustle my paper sack too loudly or scrape the rocks on the path with my bike tires. If there was serenity anywhere in Helena, Arkansas, it was here and only here and I’d luckily discovered it, my secret hideout.

We left early and I don’t remember that girl being much of a friend anymore. I understand the reasoning for that now, but it was a little hurtful at thirteen. What had I done so wrong? Was it weird to like to spend time reading and dozing in a cemetery with the war dead?

I wasn’t going to change or pretend I was not interested and happy in the Civil War cemetery. I still rose early, slipped out of the house with my lunch sack and book, and ran off on my bike every day I could.

It’s possible that’s the place where I learned to concentrate. I learned so well that when grown and working as a novelist, I could hold a thought in my head, leave it to get my children water or food, come back and pick up with the very next word in the middle of a sentence.

It’s the place that taught me not to fear the dead and their brethren. After so many years, they’d departed those grassy graves or they lay quietly waiting. They had no truck with the living world, having done their best and moved on.

Odd places like cemeteries can be a place of not just solitude, but of learning, and of acceptance of one’s own strangeness. We will all go there, those who desire burial, into the earth. Having spent a summer in a graveyard was an adventure, a revelation, and one of the best summers I remember.

I don’t know how the cemetery fares today, but being a national one, I expect it to be the same: Gray stones rising up and up and up until the woods halt the advance. Acres of the dead reminding us of what civil strife can cause, of what we can head toward if we begin to hate one another because of race or discontent. Once we load the musket, bring it to the shoulder to aim, and let loose Death against another man, woman, or child, then we at least might meet the dark grave and grow at last cold and silent.  It’s even possible a little girl walks the paths above us, reading her books and dreaming easily of days past and future.

This essay was originally published on The Peculiar Writer blog.

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Billie Sue Mosiman was born in Alabama and lives now in Texas on a small ranch. Author of more than 60 books on Amazon, Mosiman is a thriller, suspense, and horror novelist, a short fiction writer, and a lover of words. Her books have been published since 1984 and two of them received an Edgar Award Nomination for best novel and a Bram Stoker Award Nomination for most superior novel. She’s the editor of Fright Mare: Women Write Horror, to be published in February 2016. Please check out her books on Amazon.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

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