Wednesday, August 31, 2005


One of my favorite weird hobbies is checking out old cemeteries. Some find this interest a little off, but to me it is an unappreciated footnote of history and Americana.

Headstones of modern times can be quite elaborate and artful, but stones of the past hold the greatest appeal for me. Such monuments were carved lovingly by experienced hands rather than churned out en mass by the cold plotting and casting of machines. And designs were as varied and unique as the lives they humbly represent forevermore.

My favorites of late resemble large weathered tree trunks. You don't see them too often and I imagine they were very expensive to commission. They are often taller than I, and several feet around, but astonishingly delicate in appearance. Each crack and crevice of the bark is as detailed as the next. Tentacles of ivy meander up the sides in a few different spots, often sprinkled with delicate flowers, resting dragonflies, pensive toads - preserved in the carved stone. Amputated branches often display the marks of the woodcutter's blade, and jagged fibers left behind by the break. Among it all will be a chronicle of the deceased life, names of family, possibly their profession, dates of birth and death and often their age down to the day. Perhaps a memorializing quote or biblical verse as an epitaph. The last one I ran across, in a damp corner of Mohican National Forest, had established delicate colonies of lichen and moss all over, causing it to look even more real than its artisan had probably planned. The effect standing in memoriam for this all but forgotten life spent was beautifully and fluidly serene.

I am especially touched as well by those monuments for children. Infant mortality was very high a few generations ago, and older graveyards are dotted with their tiny memorials. Crouching angels and lambs perch upon angelically white markers. Small chairs as if to offer rest to their briefly visiting souls before returning from whence they came. Many simply state 'Baby Smith', 'Son', 'Daughter'. Long dead parents undoubtedly grieved their entire lives for these lost little ones.

I once saw a cluster of headstones high on a hill in Colorado. The dates suggested those who rested there were pioneers. A family was laid to rest there. Mother, Father, and four children, all having died within a week of each other. What had happened? Inclement weather? Starvation? Cholera? The flu?

How long had it been since the last person thought upon this family?

I sometimes stand in front of such headstones, struggling to remember something I couldn't possibly know about the people resting below. Each had a life that at its core probably was not much different from my own. Each had duties, joys, concerns, and matters of importance occupying their every moment. As now only this finely crafted marque remains, I try to pay homage by, if nothing else, reading the name. A name that I no doubt will promptly forget. A name which now too is weathering away with the nondiscriminatory frictions of time.


Bougie Black Boy said...

WHen I went to college there was a Quaker cemetery behind the campus. And, it was nice to always go there. I would write down names from the headstones, and put them in my journal. I'd use the names in stories. There is nothing like finding unique names! especially the pre-1900

Anonymous said...

I never knew this about you....this is also one of my favorite things to do, but ususally don't share the knowledge of this pastime with many for fear of being laughed at or considered weird as in the past.

Bainwen Gilrana said...

I've always had a strange affinity for very old cemeteries. My high school friends and acquaintances doubtless thought it was morbid beyond belief, but I did "rediscover" an early 1800s cemetery back in the woods behind the park. I would sneak back there with my notebook and write, sitting on the large stones surrounded by overgrown grass. It was never the death that was the fascination for me, it was the stories. I always wanted to know who the people had been when they were alive.

A friend and I were talking about this recently on a visit to a different cemetery. There were stones of children, stones without names, stones with obscure sigils. We had no connection to any of these people. It was clear that no family came to visit them anymore. But we looked at their stone markers, whispered their names. It may be that their ghosts heard their names across all that vast gulf of life and time, and knew that they and their lives were not completely forgotten.

truthwarp said...

I live right across the street from a very old cemetary. It's sad to see the kids who hang out there dealing drugs and disrespecting what used to be a more sacred place.

Good post!

Emit-Flesti said...

I also like the way you take common things in real life and make them yours -trough words- and eventually ours, your readers. I really thank you for that.

a spoon said...

interesting hobby. guess you could learn a lot from it

Lori said...

I have done this many times as well. A small cemetary I've gone to has a whole family of children...five or six of them, all lost within a couple of years of one another (1800's). How the mother's heart must have broken and I marvel at the strength she had to go on with life. We think we have it hard...but can you imagine such a loss?

On Veteran's Day, the students from our high school's history class research veteran's who are buried in the cemetary outside of town. They don period clothing and reinact that time as the person buried there. It's a lovely and moving tribute to our past.

sidetrack said...

When I used to put out a gothic literary zine I was really into hanging in cemeteries. Seems like decades ago. Your painstaking descriptions here are haunting and capture the essence of the subject matter. Looks like your fanbase is growing. We all agree. You're special.

Anonymous said...

You're not the only one with this fascination. We're a lot more alike than you may know.

John Ellsworth said...

Hi Clew,
Thanks for sharing Epitaphs. You make me want to explore more and find one of those beautiful tree trunk monuments. I remember once visiting a huge cemetery in Rochester, New York. It was so hilly that it reminded me of a Dr. Seuss book. I was told it went on for miles and that some of the roads had become impassable by car. I have always wondered what wonderful works of granite are still waiting there.