Well, this is an experiment. I’m trying to use the WordPress app to blog from my iPhone. So far, not impressive. I couldn’t figure out how to put a photo at the top of my post and write text after it without publishing the photo first and then editing the post. More experimentation is required.
Anyway, it’s been way too long since I did a photo challenge. The subject of today is “My Neighborhood.”
There aren’t any neighborhood graveyards in San Francisco, although there are remnants of graves in many neighborhoods. The oldest of these are in the churchyard at Mission Dolores.
I’ve written about the Mission before, but not about my relationship with it. I’ve visited it more than any other cemetery in California in the 25 years I’ve lived in San Francisco. I’ve watched it change from overgrown and full of broken stones to a tamed rose garden to full of native plants and designed to teach about the early Mission days when the Spanish converted the Miwoks.
The churchyard used to be dominated by a huge mound of stone that harked back to the grotto of Lourdes. Now it has a large tule reed house, like the Miwoks would have lived in–although not in the graveyard. It strikes me as intrusive.
I shot this photo standing outside the graveyard, looking through the chain-link fence. The shady paths looked peaceful. A robin sang at the top of its voice. Spring is here and life goes on and that’s the most beautiful thing that I know.
Several of the photos come from other Weekly Photo Challenges. Jimi Hendrix’s monument was inspired by the prompt Inside. Florence, Italy’s Grim Reaper came from the prompt “Foreign”, and the snow-frosted Gethsemane scene from Flint, Michigan’s New Calvary Cemetery summed up Winter for me last January.
I did managed to work in a couple of this year’s explorations: St. Paul’s lovely hydrangeas in full purple bloom and the obelisk belonging to the Living Martyr, John Taylor, in Salt Lake City Cemetery, which I visited in March. Even my trip to Canada shows up in August, with the stone that reads “In Memory of Ekie.”
Of all the essays I wrote this year, all the graveyards I examined, the one I feel is most important is November’s piece on the US Marine Hospital Cemetery in my hometown. It’s not much of photo, but there’s not much left to see. The graveyard was lost, paved over, forgotten — and still isn’t easy to find — but it represents the history of this city in a way that its standing buildings often do not. That little patch of ground, full of unmarked graves, speaks volumes about why cemetery preservation is so crucial. Who will speak for the dead, if we do not? Who will protect them and see that they can rest?
After our visit to Il Cimitero degli Inglesi, I read the little booklet available from the cemetery office. It said that many of the people buried in the “English” Cemetery were in fact Italians, who had been persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. Challenging the Pope’s authority in Italy in the 19th century had been a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and also refusal to be buried in sanctified ground. I wondered if the Swiss Evangelic Church had ever been allowed to bless the land of the cemetery it oversaw.
In the sea of sculpture that stood on this little island of the dead, the most amazing monument marked an Italian’s grave. A larger-than-life skeleton brandished a scythe, about to slice down a clump of stone lilies. The Reaper wore his shroud like a cloak, tossed jauntily over one shoulder. The raw bones of his shin and thigh peeped out at the bottom. A rag blindfolded his eye sockets but didn’t mask his grimacing teeth. I’d never seen anything like him. I haven’t been able to discover any information about Andrea di Mariano Casentini (1855-1870), but clearly Mama and Papa had some message to give the world when they lost their child.
In America, parents mark their children’s graves with teddy bears or toy cars. In the 19th century, when Casentini’s monument was created, Americans chose lambs (to connotate innocence) or broken rosebuds (to symbolize lives ended too soon). Nowhere have I seen Death, in all his glory, standing over American children.
During the last years of the Roman Republic, after Caesar conquered Egypt and vanquished Cleopatra, Egyptiana became the fashion in Rome. AccessRome says, “Numerous pyramids sprouted all over Rome.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that the only Roman-era pyramid still in existence sits across the street from the Piramide stop on Rome’s subway line B.
The estate of Caius Cestius built his pyramid in 12 B.C. His tomb claims he was a praetor and tribune, as well as an epulo: one of seven priests who offered sacrificial meals to the gods. Other than the pyramid, he left no mark in recorded history. Only his tomb ensured the survival of his name.
Unlike the other tombs—long destroyed—which once lined the road to Ostia, Cestius’s pyramid survived because it was incorporated into the eleven-mile wall Emperor Aurelian built to protect the city from barbarians in 271 AD. During the Middle Ages, people believed the tomb belonged to Romulus, founder of Rome. I’m fascinated by how different ages mythologized the pyramid to suit their needs. Their veneration kept the tomb intact. In fact, the pyramid owes its continued existence to serving as a landmark as much as to the protection of the Popes, even though it was as pagan as pagan could be.
My husband Mason and I came up out of the Metro to see Cestius’s hundred-foot-tall pyramid directly across the road. Aurelian’s old brick wall connected right up to it. The crumbling bricks looked fragile in comparison to the older pyramid.
Half of the pyramid lies lower than the modern surface of the ground, which seems strange because the Protestant graveyard beside it rises much higher. The cemetery was built on a hill where Rome dumped its garbage, I understand. For how many hundreds of years had this area served as a dump? What treasures lie in the soil accumulated around the pryamid?
Outside the moat around the pyramid, an historical plaque said that in his will, Cestius stipulated that he wanted his Egyptian mausoleum constructed before a year had passed after his death. The project bankrupted his heirs.
A frescoed burial room inside the pyramid spans twenty-by-fifteen feet. Apparently, one can enter the pyramid through an entrance cut into its walls during its restoration in 1663. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that when we visited. It probably wouldn’t have helped if I had. My sources, published over a span of forty years, disagree on how one might get permission to visit the interior of the tomb.
The pyramid’s marble façade glowed bright white in the late April sunshine. Although Cestius’s inscription was still legible, grass and wildflowers had sprouted from toeholds between the stone blocks, bright crimson and lavender and deep pink. I hoped my photos would capture the colors.
The pyramid as seen from inside the Protestant Cemetery
The Protestant Cemetery lies directly beside the pyramid. It was my Cemetery of the Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome in Rome, Italy.
The prompt for this week was too easy. You wanna see mine? Here they are — most of them, anyway. These are my cemetery books.
They’re jammed in the shelves really tightly, but that’s not all of them. Some are on my to-read shelf in the bedroom. Lisa Cook’s Consecrated Ground is too big to fit on any shelf, so it’s propped up nearby. There are a couple of the shelf in my office, waiting for me to write their reviews. And that doesn’t include my wish list at Amazon, which grows faster than it shrinks…
So all this makes me curious: do you have an absolute favorite cemetery book? Is there one you turn to again and again, either because it’s so fascinating that you always learn something new or because the photos are so lovely that you find looking at it so inspiring or restful?
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.