Tag Archives: Bendle Cemetery

Today my brother would have been 49

Rhoads_Allen_3853The wind ruffles the leaves, making a gentle rustle that seems to echo my breath. It’s a sound so gentle it is no sound, or else it’s the sound of the sea, of the blood, of life in its inexhaustible rush from birth to grave. Ashes to ashes, leaf to earth to soil to feed the roots to swell the buds to form leaves again to capture the sun. Everything is a cycle, endlessly spinning: the earth in its orbit, the sun whirling through the galaxy, one continuous dance flowing farther and farther out from its heart and never ever finding rest.

My brother is buried here. The wind whispers through the variegated grass that has grown high in front of the stone, obscuring words I no longer need to see to feel them stabbing into my heart, a long thin prick like a knitting needle, jabbing again and again so deep that I don’t feel the path of the pain, only its terminus, the point from which it radiates out into my limbs like a heart attack, like a stoppage of breath when you choke on something that cannot be swallowed and cannot be coughed out, which much lodge inside until you die of it.

I do not want him to be dead. My daughter tells me, in a sweet plantive voice, that she wishes she knew him. She wishes he had not chosen to drink himself to death before she was implored from the oblivion that exists before birth to come and help me heal the pain in my heart.

I wish she had known him, too.

She sometimes refuses to come to this graveyard with me any more. Once she came here and gaily chased rabbits, streaks of silence through the dancing grass. Now she knows it makes me sad like nowhere else in the world. Here lies my brother, my grandmother, the only grandfather I ever knew, and the grandmother who helped raise me, alongside her husband, who was dead before my parents conceived me. And a cousin, killed in a car accident before her first birthday, though not before mine.

Many hopes lie buried here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning

The tree monument in Bendle Cemetery, Michigan

The tree monument in Bendle Cemetery, Michigan

This lovely monument is one of the primary reasons I fell in love with cemeteries.  It stands in the little farming community graveyard near the farm where I grew up.  When I was a child, my parents drove by Bendle Cemetery all the time.  Finally, one summer day when we had nothing else to do, my mom brought my brother and I into the cemetery to explore.

Since then, I have been completely fascinated by the Youells family monument and visit it every chance I get.  The stone tree trunk stands more than six feet tall, topped with an open book inscribed with the names Abram and Harriet Youells.  A potted Calla lily and fern are carved against the base of the tree. Stone ivy rings the trunk.  Part of the “bark” seems to have been peeled back in order to write the family name.

Usually a tree trunk with its limbs removed signifies a family that dies out without heirs, but Abram left a son behind.  Apparently, Abram — who served in the Civil War, before coming to Michigan as a blacksmith —  was quite a storyteller.  The post about him on Findagrave is really worth reading.

The monument is tricky to photograph.  It stands in the permanent shadow of a whitecedar.  I have photos of it at every time of day, but this overcast afternoon proved to be the best.  I love the way the Fuji film makes the image so very green, almost as green as my childhood memories of Michigan.

I’ve written about Bendle a lot because it’s where my love of cemeteries began.  This post is about my grandmother’s headstone.  This one has more history of the cemetery and the area itself.

My Favorite Cemeteries

I’ve been conducting an unofficial survey on Twitter in which I ask everyone their favorite cemetery. The answers have been great. Everyone has an opinion and their choices have spanned the world. Very few of the cemeteries have repeated, which surprised me most of all. I thought everyone would choose the same big-name cemeteries over and over, but more people than I expected have chosen their local cemeteries down the street.

Some of the interviewees have turned the question back on me. My favorite cemetery changes from moment to moment. Several of us have agreed that picking a favorite is like choosing one of your children. You don’t want to slight anyone.

All that said, here are my favorite cemeteries at this moment:

Glorious spring in Michigan

Glorious spring in Michigan

Bendle Cemetery, Flushing, Michigan
I haven’t written about Bendle as much as I should. This is the first cemetery I remember going to as a child, the one where my grandparents, cousin, and brother are buried. It contains a variety of monuments from a six-foot tree stump to a white bronze obelisk to a lot of newer granite headstones incised with images important to the people in the community. The names on the gravestones echo the names of the country roads nearby, because the roads were named for the family farms to which they led. Of all the graveyards in the world, I have the most affection for this one.

Hollywood Forever is quintessentially Southern California.

Hollywood Forever is quintessentially Southern California.

Week #5: Hollywood Forever in Hollywood, California
Of all the cemeteries I’ve visited in the world, the one that does my heart the most good is Hollywood Forever. (So much so that I chose this image of it for the cover of Wish You Were Here.) When I visited it for the first time in the early 1990s, there were open graves gaping to the sky, where families had exhumed their loved ones to rebury them elsewhere safer and more protected. The cemetery’s perpetual care fund had been looted and everything was falling to ruin. When Tyler Cassity took over, I was worried about his ideas to lure tourists to the place, but instead the cemetery is lovely, cared for, well-visited, and better than I might have dreamed. Their annual Day of the Dead celebration is coming up on November 2. You should not miss it.

The grave of Igor Stravinsky in San Michele

The grave of Igor Stravinsky in San Michele

Week #9: San Michele in Isola in Venice, Italy
When my husband and I traveled to Italy, we built our trip around things I wanted to see: the Capuchin Catacombs of Rome, Pompeii, La Museo Zoologico La Specola (because I’d seen one of their Anatomical Venuses at the Exploratorium in San Francisco). Once we had the itinerary laid out, I filled it in with cemeteries. Our sole reason for going to Venice was to visit the cemetery island, San Michele in Isola. Reachable only by water taxi, the island seemed like one of the most isolated cemeteries in the world.  It is compartmentalized into War graves, a Protestant section, a Russian Orthodox section, and row upon row of mausoleum drawers decorated with amazing glass mosaics. It’s the only graveyard in the world where I really honestly feared being locked in for the night. There was no climbing over the wall here, unless you also swam across the lagoon.

Mourner in Cypress Lawn

Mourner in Cypress Lawn

Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California
I’m having trouble limiting my local favorite to just one cemetery, but today I’m going to go with Cypress Lawn down in Colma.  Between the exquisite glass ceilings in their catacombs to the variety of angels in the older half to all the historical figures at rest here, Cypress Lawn has rewarded repeated wandering over the 25 years I’ve lived in San Francisco. They’ve published several beautiful books about their collection of statuary and host monthly tours and lectures. (The year’s last walking tour is coming up this Saturday, October 26. Attend if you can!)  I honestly adore Cypress Lawn.

Angel in Highgate

Angel in Highgate

Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England
It’s probably no secret that my favorite cemetery is the one that really started me off down this path, London’s Highgate.  I didn’t expect to go to London at all — and I never went out of my way to see a cemetery — but an unexpected book from a random gift shop sent us to this luscious overgrown outdoor museum. Now I can’t imagine ever having chosen a different path. My introduction to Highgate was nothing short of fate and I am extremely grateful.

There you have it.  Those are my favorite cemeteries, at least as of today.  What’s yours?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family

Grandma’s headstone

When I showed my grandmother Death’s Garden, hot off the presses in 1996, I was nervous about what she would say about a book of essays about cemeteries.  Grandma was a plainspoken woman who survived the Depression as a girl in Missouri.  She didn’t spare your feelings if she could tell you the truth.  It was one of the many things for which I respected her.

She paged through the photographs of grave monuments, examining each one.  When she’d finished, she rested her gnarled hands on the book cover and asked, “Didn’t you include your grandfather’s stone?”

How could I tell her why?  The marker made me uncomfortable.  I dodged the question and said, “I didn’t have room for all the pictures I’ve taken.”

“I hope you’ll write about it someday,” she said.

The thing that made me uncomfortable about my grandfather’s gravestone is that it already had my grandmother’s name on it.  When she bought the stone, the funeral home persuaded her that it would be cheaper to carve her name and birth date into the monument at the 1961 price.  Then only the final date would need to be carved once the stone was set in place, a more expensive procedure since the engraver must travel to the cemetery.  Throughout my whole life, the ground beside my grandfather’s coffin has been waiting to swallow my grandmother.

Grandma’s in her grave now.  I hurried home to see her one last time, but fled before the end came.  As the plane bore me back to San Francisco, I knew was I making a mistake.  I should have stayed, I kept thinking.  I should have stayed.  I should have stayed ’til the end and watched her go into the ground.

October of 2000 was the first time I was able to come home after the funeral.  I kept so busy after I arrived that I didn’t have a moment to visit the graveyard.  Finally, about an hour before I needed to get in the car for the drive to Detroit to fly away again, I visited my family.

Once I rode my bike past the cemetery gates, I felt how this was my home, this little cemetery where my dad’s parents lie, where my mother’s mother and the only grandfather I remember lie, where my parents have four plots — one of which is mine, if I care to claim it.  There, the names of my childhood molder under stones that say, “Not Dead, Only Sleeping” and “Passed Out of This Life.”  Those old sentiments linger from the days when good Christians believed they would wait in their graves until Gabriel blew his trumpet and Jesus burst the bonds of death.  I remember the stories of my childhood, even if they offer no comfort.

Grandma chose no epitaph, no words to sum up the life she left or the husband she joined.  She was a staunch Baptist, saved as a girl at a tent revival.  In the end, she believed that Jesus was waiting for her when she died, waiting to escort her home.  I don’t have any such faith.  I talk to her like she’s in the ground, not in the skies singing hosannas in her wavering, tone-deaf voice.  I have no illusions that she’s sleeping beneath my feet.

As I framed a photo of Grandma’s headstone, I remembered her lying on her deathbed.  I treasured the memory of seeing her brighten and call my name and tell me that she loved me.  Tears prickled my eyes as I thought of all that is lost.  I knew the photo could not capture what I felt, nor could any words.  The woman I loved is gone, will always be gone.  In her place, I am left with a stone.

Another post about Bendle Cemetery

Some information about Death’s Garden

Weekly Photo Challenge: Fall

White bronze urn

I grew up on a farm between my grandmother’s house and the graveyard, which is named Bendle after its first caretaker.  The names on the gravestones were familiar: Nichols, Carpenter, and Calkins were the names of roads in the area.  I was an adult before I understood that the roads were named for tracks which originally led to the first farms in the area, settled by families that cleared the land and built old red barns that still stood.  Like all children, I thought that Clayton Township has always existed, instead of having been organized as late as 1846.

The Lyons family, whose descendants still live out on Nichols Road, donated an acre of land to the fledgling community to serve as burial ground.  Bendle Cemetery’s first occupant was one of Seth Hathaway’s children around 1838.  That monument, if ever there was one, has vanished.  The oldest existing tombstone remembers Albert Ottaway, less than a year old when he died in 1844.

That initial acre fascinated me when I first began to pay attention to graveyards.  There I saw my first lamb on a child’s grave.  Among the oldest monuments were a six-foot tree trunk with limbs lopped off dedicated to the Youell family and a “white bronze” metal obelisk for the Carpenters.

White bronze monuments are actually made of zinc.  They were sold via a mail order catalog.  Families ordered various plates, ornamented with symbols ranging from human figures to fraternal organization badges to the flaming urn above, to be assembled at the graveyard.  These monuments can be identified by their lovely pale bluish gray color and the fact that they’re hollow.  You can hear the difference when you tap one gently.

All the white bronze cemetery monuments in the U.S. were made by Monumental Bronze Company, which operated a subsidiary in Detroit from 1881-1885.  (The Carpenters were buried in 1891, 1899, and 1902, so it’s unlikely the monument above was made in Detroit.)  Zinc never really caught on, since people often thought it looked cheap compared to stone.  The white bronze monument business lasted only 40 years, closing down in 1914.   Strangely enough, these “cheap” monuments survive, just as crisp and beautiful as the day they were assembled.

Useful links:

What is “white bronze”?

More history of white bronze.

Burial records of Bendle Cemetery.

A post about my family in Bendle Cemetery