How the Forgotten Angels Saved My Life

0504161113a

Photos of St. Stephen’s Cemetery by Emerian Rich.

by Emerian Rich

I’ll be the first one to admit that in my twenties, I was lost. I had just graduated from college. During the first recession in my adult life, I lost all three design jobs I held. With little experience, I was at the bottom of the totem pole and the first to go. Heavily in debt with school loans, I had to take whatever job I could get, which landed me in a depressing job at an answering service. The company was located in a small house with shoddy equipment. The employees were constantly sick. I found no joy in answering 300-plus phone calls a day. The other employees were just as miserable. It was like we’d drawn the short straws and ended up in call center purgatory. The worst part was that we felt like we had no way out.

I plummeted into a dark depression. It felt hopeless and dangerous and all too real. To make myself happier, I decided to take joy in beautiful things. I turned to architecture, statuary, and cemeteries, which held a special interest because not only were they beautiful, but they had a sort of quiet melancholy that matched my soul.

On one of my treks, I found St. Stephen’s Cemetery. It’s a tiny cemetery in Concord, California, where the graves have fallen into disrepair. In the early Nineties, it was basically a hangout for kids to drink in and homeless to sleep in. It became my getaway every time I felt sad.0504161102bI discovered a whole section with stillborn or baby graves. This section was especially rough: the headstones vandalized, the little metal markers broken off and scattered. I wondered why the families didn’t visit, but the dates on the graves were from the 40s and 50s, so I assumed the parents were long gone.

I realized I found this part of the cemetery for a reason. I was looking for purpose and I found one. Me and a couple friends packed up a broom, some garbage bags, a few dozen roses, and cleaned up the baby graves. We disposed of all the beer bottles and trash left there by insensitive partiers. We placed the disassembled metal markers where we thought they went and made sure all of the broken tombstones were placed near the graves they belonged to.

As time wore on, some of my friends stopped coming with me because they were a little spooked out. I didn’t understand why people didn’t care about these poor babies. I began affectionately calling them Forgotten Angels.

As the months went by, I would visit the Forgotten Angels weekly. Slowly, through mourning these lost souls and knowing that they were now in a better place, I began to come out of my depression. Still, I felt an obligation to these dead babies. Friends would say, “Oh yeah, that sucks,” but they didn’t really understand. How could they? These little bodies buried under the dry, fruitless dirt had helped me conquer a depression so deep, it was something only I could fathom.

Although I did (and still do) enjoy visiting cemeteries, this one in particular eventually became a burden to me. It reminded me of a time when I was depressed, when I clung to my visits like a security blanket. Those of you who’ve been in a deep depression know there’s a time when you’ve finally crawled out and need to do away with things that remind you of what a deep, dark pit you were in. I felt selfish and guilty for wanting to stop visiting, but I also knew my mental health wouldn’t improve if I kept fixating on something that reminded me of being depressed.

0504161059aSo, on a cold winter afternoon, I decided to say my farewell to the babies. I brought fresh pastel pink and orange roses. I cannot tell you the guilt I felt in leaving the babies there. After I left, who would take care of them? Who would even care that they were once alive? I sat for a while, talking to the babies and letting them know that, while I still cared about them, I couldn’t come anymore, for my own sake.

A giant tree stood above the graves. As I sat there, the wind picked up, as it always did in that part of the cemetery. I wrapped my arms around myself, thinking I should’ve brought a warmer coat. I cried. I don’t think it was really because I was leaving the babies. After all, they were dead and gone and there was nothing really I could do for them. I think I was crying because that portion of my life was coming to an end. The babies had helped me get through it and I had no idea how I could repay them. I had really needed to step outside myself and take care of someone else. They provided me a way to solve that need.

I wiped my tears and prepared to leave.

When I got to the gate, I looked back over at the baby graves, shaded by that large tree. I heard a rustling to my left. I saw what looked like an angel, all in white. She was hovering above a large tombstone. At first I thought she was just a statue, like you usually see in cemeteries, but then parts of her white veil blew back and I noticed she was see-through. In sign language, she motioned, “Thank you.”

0504161100The wind picked up and the leaves rustled, drawing my attention back to the Forgotten Angels. When I looked back at the girl, she was gone, but I felt a great sense of release. Gone was the guilt of leaving the babies. The message seemed to be that I’d served my purpose—or perhaps they’d served theirs—and it was okay to leave them be.

I don’t know if what I saw was an angel, or a ghost, or just a figment of my overactive imagination, but I can tell you that after I left the cemetery that day, I felt I had done a good thing. In all confidence I knew I could take care of myself without guilt.

Although some people think cemeteries are depressing, they can bring you peace — whether you go to just look at the beautiful statuary or if you find a personal message specifically for you. Don’t be scared to explore and allow yourself the ability to heal (like I did) through honoring the dead.

***

emzEmerian Rich is the author of the vampire book series Night’s Knights. Her novel Artistic License is the tale of a woman who inherits a house where anything she paints on the walls comes alive. Emerian has been published in a handful of anthologies by Dragon Moon Press, Hidden Thoughts Press, Hazardous Press, and White Wolf Press. She is a podcast horror hostess for HorrorAddicts.net, an internationally acclaimed podcast. To find out more, go to emzbox.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

***

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 | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Cemetery Travel x 500

Highgate summer001

One of my favorite cemeteries: Highgate Cemetery in May

This is my 500th post on Cemetery Travel.  That blows my mind.  When I first started this blog in February 2011, I was looking to impress my agent, so she could find a publisher for my collection of cemetery travel essays.

As much as she liked the proposal I sent her, she wasn’t able to find a publisher for it.  I despaired, even as the blog itself took on a life of its own.

To my surprise and pleasure, a friend in the horror community offered me a book deal.  Western Legends published Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel in April 2013.

At first I saw the blog as an appendage of the book, adding essential details to the essays.  Eventually, the Cemeteries of the Week progressed beyond to 50-some graveyards in the book.  I wanted to direct travelers to the cemeteries and burial sites I hadn’t visited yet.  Some of those posts have been my most popular, hinting at how much cemetery travel information is needed.

My most popular post on the blog, by far, is the one about Martin Luther King Jr.’s gravesite, followed by Elvis Presley’s grave, and Wyatt Earp’s.  The other 143 Cemeteries of the Week still draw a lot of traffic, too.  I’d like to continue adding to that list someday.

IMG_5883

Lovely Forest Hill Cemetery

In the meantime, I continue to travel to visit graveyards.  On Memorial Day, I hiked through Madison, Wisconsin to see the native mounds at Forest Hill Cemetery.  Earlier in the month, I spent a glorious day with Emerian Rich, exploring the cemeteries of Contra Costa County, California.  I’m looking forward to revisiting Highgate Cemetery soon, seeing the Pantheon in Paris, and finding the Kiss of Death sculpture in Barcelona’s Pobleno Cemetery.  I have so many more cemeteries to see.

I’m excited to continue the Death’s Garden series of essays.  33 authors have joined the blog so far, some more than once.  They have written about the graves of family members, celebrities, and paupers.  They’ve described famous statuary and forgotten monuments.  They’ve visited cemeteries far from home and just around the corner.  They’ve explored fame and memory and the sense of indescribable peace that comes from being surrounded by acres of tombstones.

The contributors have been cemetery bloggers, tour guides, theater directors, horror writers, and more.  They’ve advocated for restoration.  They’ve arranged cemetery cleanup crews.  They’ve dressed in costume, researched historic inhabitants, and rescued people from being forgotten.  They’ve also told some pretty good ghost stories.

deathsgarden_front

Jane Handel’s hand-colored photo that graced the cover of the original Death’s Garden collection.

I’m excited to see where Cemetery Travel will take us next.  I’m working toward a book called Death’s Garden Revisited, which will collect the best of the Death’s Garden essays, along with gorgeous photography.  I’d like to do a second edition of Wish You Were Here, updating where necessary and adding an index to make it more useful for researchers.  And I’m continuing to chip away at the Historic Cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This year I’ve gotten one novel out, to be followed by its sequel in November.  I think 2017 may be the year to bring my cemetery projects into the world.

Thank you for coming along on my journey.

Posted in Cemetery blog, Cemetery essay | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Death’s Garden: Whitby

by Donna Cuttress

The Abbey

All photos of Whitby provided by Donna Cuttress.

We considered ourselves lucky to be visiting the famous churchyard of St. Mary’s in Whitby on such a beautiful spring day.

As my partner uses a walking stick, we debated climbing the 199 steps that run from the town up the cliffside to the churchyard, but decided we would ‘take it slow.’ We stopped at the benches situated at intervals and were relieved to see we moved quicker than a lot of red-faced youngsters! Afterwards, we found out that the benches were ‘coffin rests.’ Many years back, Whitby folk requested to be carried up the steps to their final resting places, rather than along nearby Green Lane, which was nicknamed ‘Hearse Road.’ During cholera outbreaks in the 19th century, burials happened at night, so being a pallbearer must have been not only exhausting but treacherous!

Caedmans Cross

Caedmon’s Cross

The view from the top is spectacular, though. As you round the final corner, you are met first with a sign ordering you to be respectful of the graveyard, then by the huge and beautiful Caedmon’s Cross. Despite the many visitors, there is enough space for the graveyard not to become overcrowded.

St. Mary’s is a very old graveyard and its setting can be bleak in the winter months. Graves have fallen over the eroding cliffside at various times, spilling bones onto the houses in the town below.

Many of the benches in the graveyard face the powerful North Sea. You are surrounded by the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs and the songs of swallows, finches, and sparrows that dive from grave to grave. We sat for a while and waited while each coach-load of tourists came and went, some looking bemused at the stones, bored even, eager to visit the hauntingly impressive abbey.

ArtistMany of the stones have had their facades washed away. Some are still intact but almost illegible: pockmarked sandstone doesn’t weather well against a raging North Sea storm. We managed to make out some of the grave markings. One that intrigued me depicted an artist’s easel, but the writing was hard to decipher.

We wandered about the graveyard, trying to read names, dates, and family history on various gravestone. Some told where they died and how, in beautiful, intricate stonemasonry.

One gravestone I found almost by accident, hidden away. It bore the year of burial 1828, initials, and the names John and Elizabeth Clegg? Legg? It seemed to to have squeezed itself among the extravagant Gothic headstones.

It was easy to lose myself in the romanticism of the graveyard. It’s famously been mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and this has attracted a lot of attention, some of it it not so welcome. The warning to be respectful is there for a reason. There were even recent plans to ban the visiting ‘Goths’ who have made Whitby, the graveyard, and the adjacent abbey a place of pilgrimage.

Sacred LucyA certain stone caught my eye. Was that Lucy? Could this have been an inspiration for Stoker?? I was getting caught up in the surroundings. My old inner Goth was overexcited!

We decided to go inside the chapel. As I read the old church notices in the main porch: ‘Funerals on Sundays precisely at 4 o’clock,’ I noticed my partner picking something up from the path outside. Before I could ask what it was, we were greeted by three lovely older ladies who ran the gift shop and answered questions. The shop in the vestibule sells locally made items, not factory-stamped tat, so it was a pleasure to browse in there.

The chapel is unique, an imposing and impressive place that can hold up to a thousand people. The Cholmley pew — they were the old Lords of the Manor — is raised on huge wooden pillars shaped like twisted sugar. Next to it stands a three-tiered pulpit with ear trumpets attached, for those who were hard of hearing. A large silver candelabra hangs in the centre, still used for candlelit services today. (I’m not a regular church-goer, but I really want to attend one of these!) The whole place is heated by a huge, looming furnace which sits in the middle of the chapel. On a bitter, stormy day, it would be much needed. There is so much to see, it’s easy to overlook some of the gems, like the charity bread cupboard, medieval christening fonts, and the 15th-century Parish Chest.

StakeAs we left, saying goodbye to the ladies, I asked my partner what he found outside. Dramatically, he beckoned me toward the gravestones and took something from his jacket pocket.  “Well? Driftwood or …?”

“A stake! What a place to find it: the spiritual home of the Vampire!” I shouted, my inner Goth out and proud. Yet now it looks like, well … driftwood. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

I can understand how this graveyard is much loved, worshipped even. It’s a very peaceful place, yet dramatically set, crammed with history and graced with a famous literary connection. Do visit the Abbey — it’s beautiful — but climb those 199 steps and come to the chapel of St. Mary’s parish church, with its evocative, picture-perfect graveyard. It is every horror lover’s dream or nightmare!

1828***

Donna Cuttress is a short story writer from Liverpool, UK. She has been published by Crooked Cat, Sirens Call, Flame Tree Publishing, and others. She has had work featured in Solarwyrm’s Clockwise Tales and written reviews of classic horror films and TV programmes for The Spooky Isles site.

***

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 | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Death’s Garden: Coimetrophobia

Alto de Sao Joao 2 - Daniel Do Nascimento

Bullfighter’s monument at the Cemetery of Alto de Sao Joao, Lisbon, Portugal. All photos by David Bingham.

by David Bingham

Here is a word that you may not be familiar with: coimetrophobia, the fear of cemeteries. My Portuguese wife does not share my love of burial grounds. Intimations of mortality cause her acute anxiety. Gravestones, mausoleums, hearses, coffins: any reminder of the lipless grin of the skull beneath the skin horrifies her. She has only been able to face visiting her mother’s grave twice in the twenty years since she died.

Cemeteries provoke overwhelming feelings of dread, perhaps because they arouse too many painful memories. Her elder brother once worked as a night watchman in the town of Evora, famous for its Roman ruins and the Capela dos Ossos, the bone chapel, in the church of Sao Francisco. He always made his way home after his 12-hour shift, tired and inattentive and no doubt dreaming of his bed, at the time when the daily rush hour was just starting. One day, instead of waiting for the lights to change at a busy intersection, he blundered out into the road, oblivious to the bus packed with commuters that knocked him down and killed him instantly. His funeral took place back home in Lisbon. He was a solitary man, with few friends, and the funeral cortege consisted of just the hearse containing the coffin and a minibus to carry the mourners.

Alto de Sao Joao 5 - tomb detailThe cortege set off at a suitably funereal pace — hearse in front, minibus at a respectful distance behind — to the cemetery. It wasn’t long before there were mutterings about the route chosen by the hearse driver. It did not seem to be the most direct was the general consensus. My fellow passengers grew increasingly restive as we drove on. When we halted at a set of traffic lights, one of them insisted on getting down from the minibus. He ran to the hearse and had what appeared to be a very animated conversation with the driver. When he returned to the bus, he announced, “O gajo disse que ele sabe aonde nós vamos.” The guy says he knows where he is going.

When we finally pulled into the cemetery 20 minutes later, there was uproar. My fellow passengers piled out of the minibus, surrounded the hearse, and began manhandling the driver. He had driven us to the wrong cemetery. Now we were at least 45 minutes from where we should have been, at 4:00 in the afternoon, an hour before the correct cemetery closed…just as Lisbon’s notorious rush-hour traffic was about to start.

Our hitherto stately pace soon stepped up a gear as we raced against time to get to the cemetery before it closed. Dignity went out of the window. The hearse gradually increased its speed as it wove in and out of the traffic on the freeway. The disgraced driver leaned heavily on his horn to warn slower vehicles to get out of the way. The reckless manoeuvring and excessive speed soon attracted the attention of the traffic police. Further valuable minutes were wasted at the side of the road, explaining to a pair of impassive cops in mirror shades what the hurry was, then arguing when they gave both drivers tickets.

Alto de Sao Joao 7 - Fernão Botto Machado

Monument of Fernao Botto Machado.

When we finally arrived at the cemetery, the main gates were already closed. The staff told us to come back amanhã. I swear money had to exchange hands before the gates swung open again and we were issued a pair of shovels and told we had 15 minutes. The priest who was meant to officiate had long since gone home, as had the gravediggers, and so my brother-in-law was buried without benefit of clergy. The funeral directors seemed most reluctant to get their hands dirty, but being surrounded by a mob of furious, grieving relatives who looked likely, at any further provocation, to batter them senseless and bury them alive, accepted the spades thrust into their hands. They shoveled dirt unenthusiastically on top of the coffin.

The experience may have put my wife off cemeteries, but it merely whetted my curiosity. A few years later, when my sister-in-law moved to a new apartment in the high-rise suburb of Olaias, I was intrigued by the large hillside cemetery I could see from her 8th-floor windows. The Cemitério do Alto de São João didn’t look too far away. I promised myself that, when an opportunity presented itself, I would go and have a good look.

It took a good couple of years before that opportunity came. One day we were in Lisbon at my sister-in-law’s. She was engaged with my wife in one of those interminable family conversations that are deeply interesting to the participants and utterly confusing to anyone who doesn’t know the family tree root, branch, and twig. We had just eaten a heavy Portuguese lunch (at which I probably helped myself to more than my fair share). I’d had a couple of Sagres beers, the apartment was warm, the conversation was about the avô of some tia’s cunhada back in Beira Alta, and the inevitable happened. My wife shook me brusquely awake and told me to go for a walk and get some air.

I finally had my chance to visit the Alto de São João, the Heights of St. John. It took me a while to find the cemetery. Still groggy and disoriented when I left the apartment, I took the easiest route out of Olaias, downhill, which took me down into the valley below the cemetery and left me with a long walk back uphill to skirt the walls and locate the entrance.

Alto de Sao Joao 6 - mausoleumsThe cemitério is a true necropolis. The dead mainly reside aboveground in sepulchres and mausoleums that line streets that have names and numbers, just like in a real town. In Lisbon’s strong light, the cemetery’s deserted lanes, its mausoleums and memorials, take on the eerie atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.

The site was first used as a burial ground in 1833 during a cholera epidemic, when plague pits were dug on what was then a hilltop outside the Lisbon city limits. At that time, Portugal had very few cemeteries; most interments were made in religious buildings of one sort or another, mainly parish churches, but also in monasteries and convents. Following centuries of burials within the walls, these became overcrowded and unsanitary. In 1835, a Liberal government passed a law obliging the civil authorities to create walled cemeteries in all urban areas of Portugal. It was an unpopular measure, provoking riots in the town of Lanhoso that grew into an anti-government uprising in the northern region of Minho. However, in the more sophisticated cities of Lisbon and Porto, the Portuguese bourgeoisie were as enthusiastic about cemeteries as their counterparts in London, Paris, or Berlin.

In response to the new laws, the city government of Lisbon founded two cemeteries in 1835, both on high ground on the city outskirts: Prazeres (Pleasures! The name is not ironic, it came from the name of the quinta, the country estate, on which the cemetery was laid out) and on the Alto de São João, looking out over the broad sweep of the river Tejo (Tagus).

In death as in life, 19th-century Portugal was a divided nation. Which of Lisbon’s two cemeteries you were buried in depended very much on your political views. Prazeres is the resting place of choice for the Conservatives — the aristocrats, clergy, military, and high financiers — who were the backbone of traditional society. The inhabitants of the Cemitério do Alto de São João, on the other hand, are Liberals to a man: republican political figures, journalists, writers, artists, and the petty bourgeoisie who supported them.

So liberal was the climate at the cemetery that it was the obvious site for Portugal’s first crematorium. Its construction was approved in 1912 and completed shortly afterwards. Predictably, the innovation was opposed by the Catholic Church, but cremation proved a proposition too radical for even their most Liberal opponents. The crematorium only became functional in 1925, when an incinerator was acquired from Germany. Once working, it proved a huge flop: between 1925 and 1936, only 22 people chose to be cremated. The decoration of the crematorium itself is remarkable: the skulls, femurs, and pelvic bones, wreathed in flames and smoke — with its hint of the inferno — seem calculated to create unease amongst potential clients with religious qualms.

Alto de Sao Joao 4 - Crematorium detailCemetery management conceded defeat and closed the crematorium down in 1936. It didn’t reopen until 1985, and then mainly as a result of pressure from Lisbon’s growing Hindu community. Cremation gradually became an acceptable method of disposing of the dead, though nowhere near as popular as it is in the UK or the USA.

Alto de Sao Joao 3 - Tomas da RochaMy favourite memorials at the cemetery belong to the bullfighters Fernando de Oliveira, Daniel Do Nascimento, and Tomás Da Rocha. Portuguese bullfighting is very different from Spanish: the bull isn’t killed. The important toureiros (bullfighters) are not matadors, but the cavaleiros, horsemen who dress in 18th-century costume. Mounted on Lusitano horses, their job is to stick three or four bandarilhas into the big hump of muscle that sits over a bull’s front legs to weaken it. This makes it possible for the cavaleiro to be replaced by an 8-strong forçada, a group of amateur fighters, who enter the ring unarmed and whose job is to engage the bull in an intimate clinch, a group hug called a ‘pega.’

Accidents, sometimes fatal, are not uncommon in the Corridas. Fernando de Oliveira died in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon on the afternoon of 12 May 1904. Fernando was fighting Ferrador, a bull bred on the estate of the Marquês de Castelo Melhor. Fernando managed to sink his first bandarilha into the bull’s back, but the incensed animal charged, knocking his horse’s legs from underneath him. Bullfighter and horse collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs, and stirrups, and the bull attacked again. Other toureiros ran to help. The bull was coaxed away. The panicked horse climbed back to its feet and ran, bucking and kicking, around the ring. Fernando lay where he had fallen. The base of his skull was fatally crushed.

Alto de Sao Joao 1 - Fernando De Oliveira

Monument to Fernando de Oliveira.

In the days before film and video, no one could be quite sure what had happened after the horse stumbled. Some thought that the fall itself was responsible for the head injury. Others were sure that Fernando had been smashed on the back of the head by a flying stirrup. Others swore that the horseman had managed to raise himself to his knees immediately after his fall, but with his back towards the bull, which gored him from behind. Fernando’s monument in the cemitério was raised by public subscription amongst aficionados of Portuguese tauromaquia.

I have been back to the Cemitério do Alto de São João many times since that first visit, but have never been able to persuade my wife to accompany me. Ironically she shares the common Catholic antipathy to cremation and insists that when her time comes, she must be decently buried. In a cemetery, of course. Death reconciles us with everything, it seems, even coimetrophobia.

***

Self portraitBorn in the north of England, David Bingham has been living in London for 35 years. He loves the city and its history, especially the cemeteries. He is married to a Portuguese coimetrophobe and they have two teenage girls. They have a house in Portugal and one day plan to split their time between Lisbon and London.

David started The London Dead three years ago as a way of sharing his fascination with the stories he discovered in the cemeteries and churchyards of London. One day, when he finally rids himself of work commitments — and the girls don’t require chauffeuring and chaperoning somewhere virtually every evening and weekend — he will start a blog called The Lisbon Dead.

***

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 | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Death’s Garden: Cemetery Strawberries

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo of Pension Mountain Cemetery in Arkansas by Chris LaMay-West.

by Chris LaMay-West

Once we left the main route, the rest of the way was up a winding mountain road of packed orange clay dirt when it was dry, red mud when it had rained. I don’t remember if we went in my grandfather’s pickup truck, but I’m sure we wished we were in something sturdier if we didn’t. I do remember not wanting to take my eyes off of the humid press of green on the sides of the road, in case something wondrous emerged from the jungle. Technically subtropical coniferous forest, since we were in the Ozarks and not the Amazon, but the impression of overwhelming fecundity was the same to a ten-year-old boy raised in the brown hills of California.

There wasn’t a parking lot, just an area to pull over which couldn’t hold more than two or three cars at a time. It didn’t need to. Hardly anyone visited the tiny cemetery, except Grandpa Tom, when he occasionally came to mow the grass. I don’t know who mows it now that he’s buried there. His passing came years later, when I was in Japan for a semester abroad during college. I couldn’t get back for his funeral, in fact haven’t been back at all since those childhood summer vacation visits. But I still remember the first time.

I remember how, on our way to the cemetery that day, we stopped by an old schoolhouse Grandpa Tom had gone to. The sagging roof, splintered holes in the porch, and dusty interior made clear it wasn’t in use anymore. He still tended to the building and so had keys to let us in. Once inside, he pointed out where he’d carved his name in a desk as a boy. Though faded and worn, the hatch marks spelling out “Tom West” were still visible in the wood. This was more impressive to me than any Egyptian antiquity from a museum. I experienced the first intimations I can remember that there was a whole world that had preceded me.

PMC2The experience was still on my mind when we arrived at the cemetery. Stately pines made pools of shade on the grassy floor, welcome respite from the heavy summer day. At first, it seemed an innocent and carefree enough place to stretch out on the lawn and read a book while the adults were doing whatever they were doing. Inevitably, though, my attention wandered to the headstones. My legs soon followed.

Some of the markers were new, sporting shiny polished marble with ornate flourishes of design along the edges. Others, of more modest means, were little more than metal signposts or even white wooden crosses in cement bases inside old coffee cans sunk into the ground. Carrol County, Arkansas must have seen better days, because the older graves tended to be the most formal. Even through the darkened patina of water stains and inlaid sheets of lichen, they retained a weight and dignity that the newer burials lacked.

There, among the older burial stones, I began to see Wests.

I’d never seen my last name on a gravestone before. And this was not just casual coincidence: these were the concrete traces of forbearers who had come and gone. My forebears.

I ticked off the birth and death years, calculated the spans in my head. I still do this today when visiting cemeteries. This first time, the math had a special urgency. Born 1863. Died 1939. 76. Did that mean I could expect another 66 years? This seemed an unimaginably long span of time on one hand and a shockingly limited one on the other. If the schoolhouse had made real a world that stretched out before I was here, I now saw, literally written in stone, that a world would stretch out after me when I was gone.

What I remember even more sharply than that realization, though, is this: Here and there, in the untended spaces between the graves, flashes of red grew amidst the green. Squatting down, I saw that they were tiny strawberries. I’d heard (probably read) of wild strawberries, but never seen them before. I experimentally popped one into my mouth and then, delighted, started to gather them.

Those were sweet strawberries.

PMC3

Photo of the author’s grandfather’s headstone, courtesy of Chris LaMay-West.

***

Pension Mountain Cemetery
Rural Route 507, Berryville, AR 72616
Established: unknown, earliest recorded burials seem to be from 1905
Number of Internments: 142 recorded

headshot***

Chris LaMay-West believes in the power of rock music, Beat poetry, and the sanctity of Star Trek. He has appeared in Kitchen Sink and Morbid Curiosity, in various online venues including The Rumpus and Opium, and in the Mortified reading series. A California native, Chris currently resides in Vermont, where he writes, works for a college, serves as the poetry editor for Mud Season Review, and lives with his wife, two cats, a dog, and several chickens. His literary exploits can be followed at: http://chrislamaywest.com/

***

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 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments