Despite the heat baking the insides of my lungs, I halted before the little marble gravestone. It stood as tall as my knee, nearly blinding me in the August sun. I don’t know why it had seemed like a good idea to visit M. Parfitt in August. A transplanted Sacramentan, she was dressed in blue jeans and a plaid short-sleeved top. I felt practically indecent in my hand-me-down sundress. It had to be 110 degrees. Still, I shivered as I framed the little headstone in my camera’s lens.
It said: “Our Dear Cora’s Last Request: I am going to die. Do not bury me in the cold ground.”
Had they ignored her dying wish? Did she curl beneath my feet in the dry Sacramento dirt? Could she feel the heat of the sunlight crushing me to the ground? Was she basking in warmth down deep inside her grave?
Had 7-year-old Cora Elvareto Dingley belonged to one of the Christian sects who believed that the dead remained imprisoned in their graves until Judgment Day, straining to hear Gabriel’s horn? Had she been begging for the reassurance that she’d meet her mother again in Heaven? Had she longed to go to “the Spiritland,” as one of her permanent neighbors did? On her monument, no graven angel led Cora upward. No hand of God reached down to her.
The child’s words blazed from the gravestone like an accusation. Her parents couldn’t fend off death. They couldn’t keep her safe or protect her when it mattered. They couldn’t keep her with them, but had to bury her in the cold earth. They couldn’t even have cremated her, since the first crematory was built in Pennsylvania in 1876, the year following Cora’s death.
It wasn’t the Dingleys’ parental failures that froze my heart that August day. It was that her parents chose her wish to adorn her tombstone, so that every time they stood before it, every time they touched the marble or brought her flowers, every time they thought of their little girl, they would know how they had disappointed her, sending her alone into the ground. Everyone who passed the grave would know how terribly, how thoroughly, they’d failed her.
Cemetery of the Week #66: Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, California