Friday, June 10, 2016

Cemetery Stories



People often ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Of course, all fiction stems from the imagination and the simplest answer is that I make it up. But the imagination is not an bottomless pool of ideas--like anything else, it needs to be fed. So when not actually scribbling away, I'm busy replenishing the toolbox of imagination.

One sure way to get my creative juices flowing is a visit to an old graveyard. From Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel to Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, writers have sought inspiration in these cities of the dead. Join me for a little tour of some of my favorite spots.
Is she looking homeward?
The Angel of Peace
Forest Hills Cemetery,  Boston
This contemplative angel brought to mind the sad lyricism of Thomas Wolfe,
You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile....back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time--back home to the escapes of Time and Memory--Thomas Wolfe
A penny for your thoughts?
Antietam Cemetery, Maryland
The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, was  the bloodiest day in American combat history with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. More than twice as  many Americans were killed or mortally wounded in combat at Antietam that day as in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.

Previous visitors had left coins on many of the soldiers's headstone. Most were pennies, though I spotted a few nickles. Was this a fee for the ferryman or was there some other meaning?

Later I read that coins left at grave sites held a special meaning for the military dead, with each denomination meaning something different. But it all comes down to remembrance, which is the last gift the living give the dead.
Antietam Battlefield
City of the Dead, with luxurious above-ground accommodations,
courtesy of Marie Laveau
Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans
Mark Twain was much impressed with the neat necropolises of New Orleans:

Many of the cemeteries are beautiful, and are kept in perfect order. When one goes from the levee or the business streets to a cemetery, he observes... that if those people down there would live as neatly while they are alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it; and besides, their quarter would be the wonder and admiration of the business world.

I was touched by these dual headstones in Copp's Hill, the grave site of two young brothers, one-year-old Josiah and his three-year-old Nathaniel, who died on the same bleak November day in 1721.In not too long a time, the writing on the stones will be erased.
Copp's Hill Burying Ground
Boston
I have heard it said that parents in olden days didn't mourn their lost children as we do because childhood death was so common. What nonsense! Here is the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet lamenting the death of her infant  grandson, who died being but a month, and one day old.
No sooner came, but gone, and fall’n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caused us weep;
Three flowers, two scarcely blown, the last I’ th’ bud,
Cropt by th’ Almighty’s hand; yet is He good.
With dreadful awe before Him let’s be mute,
Such was His will, but why, let’s not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let’s say He’s merciful as well as just.
He will return and make up all our losses,
And smile again after our bitter crosses
Go pretty babe, go rest with sisters twain;
Among the blest in endless joys remain.
 
Memorials aren't limited to angels and headstones. When Grace died at five years old from whooping cough, her lifelike statue was encased in glass, where it remains as pure and unblemished as the day it was created. From her expression, she must have been a serious little soul.
Forest Hills Cemetery
Boston

Some statuary borders on the whimsical--check out this pair of beds.
This might just be a straightforward representation of the actual beds of the deceased, but every time I look at this picture I think of Prospero's words, when he realized the party was indeed over.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


I bet Shakespeare visited a graveyard or two in his day!

Sweet dreams.


4 comments:

jean harrington said...

Hmm, Daryl,cemeteries are such a good topic for a mystery/thriller writer that I'm surprised it hasn't surfaced here before your post raised (pun intended!)the topic. I remember visiting a New Orleans cemetery with its layers of bodies. Creepy but, yes, beautiful. I also remember visiting the Vicksburg Cemetery where the bodies of the Union soldiers who died in that battle are arranged in perfect formation. Looking at the symmetry of those graves, I wondered how that was achieved for hundreds of bodies in June weather in the deep South. Another sad but beautiful sight.

Rhode Island, my home state, has an historic cemetery, Swan Point, that goes back to Colonial times. Some of the oldest headstones are already unreadable which, as you point, out will happen elsewhere.

Omigod, I need a drink!

Anne Marie Becker said...

So many people with so many stories, many that will never be told. Cemeteries are indeed fascinating.

Maureen A. Miller said...

Great post, Daryl. I lived across the street from a cemetery for a good portion of my life. I spent so much time walking through there that I knew every stone, and I would talk to them all. I would always take a moment to stop and visit any new inhabitants too. I wanted them to know that they were in a nice cemetery. It's very sad to say, but one of those new residents that I welcomed was a victim of the Virginia Tech massacre.

Rita said...

There are 3 cemeteries here (St. Augustine) with that have dates back to the 17th century. Another, The National Cemetery starts with Civil War burials and two just out of town start with the 18th century. Ghost tours through them are popular. I can tell you I grew up using two of them as a play ground and was only spooked out in one. Local historical societies have loads of info on the people there. Many are ancestors of families still living here. I've never thought of using them for a story. BUt I have now. :-)