The challenge for this week is to show perspective. I like this photo because it captures both proximity and distance, but also spans time from the colonial graveyard to 21st-century Manhattan outside the cemetery gates.
I took this photo on my iPhone on our first day in New York City. We were jet-lagged and it was hot (or at least, it seemed hot to people used to San Franciscan summer). My daughter dragged her feet and whined about having to visit a cemetery.
Stories always make her perk up and connect to the places we visit, so I told her briefly about the 9/11 attacks. I pointed out the skeleton of the new World Trade Center rising nearby. I told her about the planes and the firemen and the people who died. I told her about the photo I’d seen of this churchyard snowed over with debris fallen from the towers: insulation and financial papers and children’s drawings, things blown out of the offices above. I told her about the rescuers who’d slept in the church while they searched for survivors and the empty t-shirts that hung on the fence when I visited last time, eloquent memorials to the first responders who were lost when the towers fell.
St. Paul’s Churchyard stands as a symbol to me. My feelings are complicated, threaded with horror and sadness, but at the heart, I felt compassion and connection there. The graves are old. They endure. The world swirls around them, but here, in this shaded green place, a traveler found peace. May the world find peace as well.
Last July, I took my daughter half an hour away from home for a week of pony camp. She stayed with my friend Kristin’s family, but it was as long as she’d ever been away from home before.
I dropped her off at the ranch Monday morning, waved goodbye with a lump in my throat, and went off to a cafe to research the cemetery I’d heard about farther south, down in Pescadero, California. Kristin said she’d tried to find the grave of that little girl who died in a plane crash there, without any luck.
After a little poking around on the internet, I learned that buried in Pescadero was Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old who died in 1996 while trying to become the youngest person ever to fly across the US. While trying to keep up with their media commitments, her flight instructor had taken off in a storm over Wyoming and couldn’t keep the plane aloft. Everyone onboard was killed.
Like Kristin, I looked and looked around the little graveyard, without being sure I’d found Jessica’s monument. There was a strange cement monument that reminded me of a porthole in a ship or a plane’s window, but I didn’t see Jessica’s name on it.
According to Findagrave, this is Jessica Dubroff’s monument.
While I searched, the little stone dedicated to Nellie spoke to me more clearly. Surrounded by Spanish lavender, which doesn’t mind California’s long dry summers, the white marble stone was decorated with a lamb, the symbol of innocence that often marked Victorian children’s graves. Little Nellie had been gone a long time, but evidently she wasn’t forgotten.
Before I became a mother, I never understood the depth of pain that could be summarized by a child’s headstone. After I struggled through my pregnancy — facing both my own death and that of my daughter — I began to understand what it meant to have something entirely irreplaceable. I wondered if I could survive if she died. I wondered if I could ever let her out of my sight.
Seven years later, I knew — even if she didn’t — that pony camp was dangerous. She could fall from her mount and break her collarbone, as my father had. She could be thrown off and strike her head. Perhaps I had already said goodbye to her for the last time.
Nellie’s stone was one more reminder that life is fragile, and precious, and every moment together should be savored. I hung around the California coast until pony camp got out for the day, so I could snatch a few more moments with my daughter. She never knew why I hugged her so tightly.
Swan Point Cemetery
585 Blackstone Boulevard
Providence, Rhode Island 02906
Telephone: 410-272-1314 Founded: 1846 Size: 210 acres Number of interments: approximately 40,000 Open: Depending on the weather, Swan Point is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. during Daylight Savings. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
Founded on just 60 acres in 1846, Rhode Island’s Swan Point Cemetery absorbed people who had been previously buried in the West Burial Ground and other earlier graveyards around Providence. The oldest section of the cemetery, overlooking the Seekonk River, contains graves that date back as early as 1722.
In 1886, Chicago-based landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland was hired to develop Blackstone Boulevard through the cemetery. He’s responsible for the wall of large boulders that front Blackstone Boulevard for more than a mile, which was completed in 1900. In 1903, the Butler Avenue trolley car was extended to the cemetery, where a fieldstone shelter was constructed for riders. Many people came out just to walk the grounds.
The Aylsworth family monument
Even now, Swan Point’s chief draw is the beauty of its landscaping, which varies from lawn to forest trees to rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and other flowering shrubs. In all it contains more than 200 kinds of trees and shrubs, most of them labeled. In the spring, daffodils gild the old section by the river.
Swan Point is full of lovely Victorian statuary, as well. Twenty-three former governors of Rhode Island are buried in Swan Point, each under a suitably grand monument.
Also among the better known people buried at Swan Point Cemetery is Major Sullivan Ballou, wounded in the first battle of Bull Run, whose beautiful farewell letter to his wife featured in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.
H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone
Swan Point’s most famous permanent resident is Howard Pillips Lovecraft. In New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide, published in 1975, Andrew Kull wrote that Lovecraft’s grave was “somewhat difficult to find, since the name is inscribed on the monument of another family.” He recommended “cultists” ask at the office. When I visited in 2002, I thought my husband and I might be regarded as weirdoes, but the secretary treated our request as a common occurrence. She pulled out a drawer full of manila files. Inside Lovecraft’s file waited a stack of maps, already copied. She traced our route and sent us on our way without batting an eye. “Look for an obelisk that says Phillips,” she directed. “He’s right behind that.”
We took the main drive through the cemetery, swung around the 40-foot-tall Barnaby column — topped by a blindingly white muse — zigged and zagged briefly, then saw the Phillips monument directly ahead. The original monument on the plot belonged to Lovecraft’s grandparents. The back of it held Lovecraft’s parents’ name and dates. At the bottom, he was remembered as Howard P. Lovecraft, “Their Son.”
A smaller stone rose nearby. After New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide saw print, Dirk W. Mosig — at that time, the leading authority on Lovecraft — solicited contributions to erect an individual tombstone. He unveiled it during a small ceremony in 1977. The low red granite marker spelled out Howard Phillips Lovecraft, August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1938, and added the epitaph, “I am Providence.”
Those words came from a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian, eventually published in 2000 in Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Lovecraft wrote, “I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have — in some form or other. Providence is part of me — I am Providence…”
One might have suspected that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was destined for oblivion. As a child, frequent psychosomatic illnesses kept him from school. He learned to recite poetry at the age of two and read the Arabian Nights (scarcely a children’s book) by the time he was five, so he acquired his view of the world — and vocabulary — from books, not from people.
Despite his inexperience with the world, “The Beast in the Cave,” his first fiction, appeared in 1905, when he was 15. Twelve years later, he still lived with his mother, which allowed him to write his gloomy tales in peace. Inspired by the fantasies of Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote his first novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in 1926. He was 36. Eleven years later, he’d be dead. Except for a brief sojourn in New York City, he spent his entire life in Providence.
Most of his fiction appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and went uncollected into book form until after his death. Despite that, he is considered the 20th-century Poe, a pioneer in combining elements of horror and science fiction.
When Mason and I visited Swan Point Cemetery on a lovely April day, offerings piled on Lovecraft’s granite block. In addition to pennies lined carefully along the top of the gravestone, someone had left white pebbles. A bouquet of iris and ferns crumbled in the grass.
The air in Swan Point was vibrant with birdsong, fragrant from the exquisite elderly fruit trees laden with blossoms. The cemetery gave the sensation that life continues, despite darkness, despair, and death.
Green-Wood in Springtime, photographed by Aaron Brashear.
500 25th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11232
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Founded: 1838 Size: 478 acres Number of interments: more than 560,000 Open: The main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th street is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, with extended hours in the summer.
This weekend: Saturday, March 31 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Photographer John Thomas Grant will present a talk and lead a tour called Eternal Beauty: Green-Wood Through the Lens (with a special presentation on Victorian mourning). The talk is free, but there is a fee for the tour. Tickets are $15 for members of the Green-Wood Historic Fund, $20 for non-members, and are available here.
Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery followed the garden cemetery movement pioneered in the United States by Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. That is, these cemeteries didn’t belong to churches, but used the beauty of their grounds to attract clientele. After two years of landscaping, Green-Wood Cemetery hosted its first burial in 1840.
The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries claims, “Green-Wood’s beauty ultimately inspired the contest to design Central Park.” In the 19th century, sightseers took trains to Green-Wood merely to walk its paths. In 1860, the graveyard pulled in half a million visitors a year: a tourist attraction rivaling Niagara Falls.
Alongside Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue rises its huge Gothic Revival archway. Richard Upjohn, designer of Green-Wood’s entryway, did his part to welcome visitors to the cemetery. Pierced like lace, the breathtaking brownstone gate ascends in high arches.
Warren and Wetmore, the firm that designed Grand Central Station, designed the chapel. The chapel, built in 1911, stands on land that used to be Arbor Water, one of the famous ponds of Green-Wood.
The ground facing the former pond rose in terraces lined with mausoleums. The architecture spans Egyptian pyramids to columned Greek temples to the Romanesque receiving tomb.
Green-Wood reportedly has 20 miles of drives. Its 478 acres contain more than 560,000 souls. Until the 20th century, it was the largest landscaped cemetery in the world.
Two seated angels in magnificent relief flank the ornate cutwork door of the Stewart mausoleum. The angel on the right holds a slender trumpet as tall as his shoulder. In Green-Wood: New York’s Buried Treasure, Jeffrey I. Richman said the angels had been controversial in their day, since they didn’t depict death as gloomy. The relief had been designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of the figure called Grief at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In the 19th century, a large variety of souvenirs pictured the cemetery. These were originally collected on sightseeing tours or as souvenirs from imaginary vacations. Famous and Curious Cemeteries reports that there were over a thousand stereo-opticon cards of Green-Wood by 1862.
Stereoviews were stiff cardboard cards with a pair of duplicate photographs mounted on them. You slipped the cards into a stereopticon viewer, peered inside, and the image magically became three-dimensional. Millions of cards were produced, documenting every imaginable thing from scenes of daily life to pornography to natural disasters like the San Francisco earthquake and fire. The number of cemetery cards alone is staggering.
In my stereoviews, Charlotte Canda’s memorial is a gothic fantasy enclosed by a lacy iron fence. A small chapel with twin spires houses a statue of the virgin, one hand over her bosom. Six granite steps lead down to the lawn. A pair of worshipful angels kneels at the edges of the plot. It is the pinnacle of Victorian memorial art.
Charlotte Canda was the only child of a French émigré who’d fought in Napoleon’s army before opening a girls’ school in New York. The prodigy Charlotte designed the ornate memorial for an aunt. After a party to celebrate her seventeenth birthday, horses pulling her carriage bolted through a raging storm. Flung to the street, Charlotte died in her parents’ arms.
During the 1850s, Canda’s grave had the most visited monument in the country. Richman reports, “On any given Sunday, a crowd gathered around it.” A 1985 issue of American Cemetery magazine said that Canda’s monument was “still one of the most popular of the cemetery’s numerous attractions.” More than the graves of Samuel Morse (inventor of the telegraph), Elias Howe (inventor of the sewing machine), or Lola Montez (Gold Rush-era dancer of questionable talent who seduced Franz Liszt), I went to Green-Wood to see Canda’s monument.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of the Interior named Green-Wood Cemetery a National Historic Landmark. It is only the fourth cemetery in the nation to receive this designation.
Rich Moylan, President of the Green-Wood Cemetery, takes pride in the cemetery’s restoration program, which he says has “restored hundreds, if not thousands, of memorials over the past 10 years.” In 2009, they were raising funds to recreate an angel that disappeared over 60 years ago from pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s monument. Green-Wood has also worked with the New York Restoration Project to plant nearly 500 new trees. Throughout the cemetery, over 7,500 trees have been tagged and catalogued.
In the future, Green-Wood would like to open a Visitor Center away from the cemetery’s main office, so that tourists can be kept separate from mourners. Green-Wood provides 1500 burials and 2200 cremations per year, while welcoming 300,000 visitors. The Visitor Center will include museum space to display “original artworks by the nearly 300 artists of note resting here. The collection now exceeds 100 paintings by over 70 of those artists.”
The history of leaving flowers for the dead stretches back beyond memory. These are some of my favorites: delicately painted ceramic flowers brightening the plain wooden cross on a grave in Paris. The French call them “immortelles.”
The cemetery is pocket-sized Cimetière St-Vincent, down the hill from Sacre Coeur on Montmartre. The little graveyard doesn’t have a lot of famous names inside. Painter Maurice Utrillo is perhaps the best known. What it lacks in star power, St. Vincent more than makes up for in its lovely artwork. There are a number of beautiful sculptures, but what drew me were the more intimate details.
Roses signify love and often adorned the gravestones of Victorian-age women. In Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister says that Christian mythology holds that the rose has no thorns in Paradise. Its beauty and fragrance are meant to remind us what Heaven will be like.
The purple flowers on this grave are more difficult to identify. I suspect they’re violets, which are shy, shade-loving flowers with a sweet fragrance. In the language of flowers, violets symbolized modesty and faithfulness.
Here’s a modern version of immortelles, but their yellow-hearted violets look like primroses to me.
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