Jeff texted me a photograph this afternoon. In quick succession he wrote, “$2200,” then “Need a grave?”
I was horrified. He’d sent a photo of a beautiful lime green coffin-shaped niche, tall as a person, surrounded by a little white metal fence. “Whose grave is it?” I wrote.
“Dunno.” He was in an antique shop in Sonoma, saw it, and thought of me.
I am pretty sure it’s illegal to sell things from graveyards, as a way to discourage the theft of things from graveyards. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know for certain. If I’d been at the shop with him, I would have quizzed the proprietor about whether these grave decorations had papers, whether they were legitimately purchased from a funeral home or monument dealer or from a cemetery that was going out of business.
Then Jeff sent me another photo. This one was a truly exquisite wrought iron cross, delicate as lace, with metal roses twined around and through its arms. I felt a rush of WANT. It would look so beautiful in my yard…
But of course it also came from a graveyard. And while I know there are any number of disassembled graveyards strewn throughout the world, it’s much more likely than someone saw it, stole it, and sold it to the antique dealers.
Recently I saw a headstone in a shop in San Francisco as well. When I questioned the owner, he got visibly uncomfortable. That headstone came from Europe, he said. He could look up the country, if I was interested, but he didn’t know off the top of his head. Not many people asked that kind of question.
Jeff said that the antiques in Sonoma were probably French, because the shop sold French antiques.
In both cases, the grave markers seem unlikely to have been shipped overseas. My feeling is that there are a lot of Gold Rush-era graveyards spread throughout the foothills of the Sierras. Not all of them belong to living towns any more. All of the dead folk in those graveyards are part of history now. Just as one shouldn’t steal a potsherd from an Native American mound, or a mummy from Egypt, or brooch from a Roman hoard in a field in Britain, one shouldn’t remove monuments from a graveyard. Any graveyard. No matter how abandoned it might look. It would be like ripping pages from a library book.