“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais
Shelley about says it all, in my opinion, about cemeteries.
I have had a pretty much lifelong fascination with these repositories of souls departed. I find them peaceful, serene, full of art, and wonder, and craftsmanship that is rarely seen and almost never appreciated for the talent that it is.
My parents were probably responsible for this fetish, after a fact. I recall trips through New England as a child, searching out the town burial grounds of my father’s ancestors in Massachusetts. Persistently, methodically, single-mindedly searching for my last name from row to stone to aisle. Rejoicing, victorious when I found a gathering of stones all reflecting back to me the letters I had methodically learned were mine in Kindergarten.
I would dig my fingers into the encroaching dirt and weeds to unearth the words, if not the souls, of those so long ago laid down here. Quietly waiting for an essence to transport me to their era, a vision of their lives to carry me on into my own future which seemed, at that young age, to stretch into eternity. How far back they seemed and how far forward I had to go before I, too, would be as stolid and stony as they, permanent in name only and in the fragmented memories of facts long ago forgotten.
Five or six decades have since intervened.f
I still seek out these silent stone gardens, my mind and will subliminally pulling the steering wheel through the gates of almost any field of forgotten dreams, passing beneath like a magnet towards a north star of the imagination.
The genesis of my fixation on the hereafter in the form of stolid stone-works comes from my very early childhood. My mother, determined to get me the best education possible, resigned from her post on the county school board, drummed up a million dollars (which, in 1960 was a whole lotta, lotta) and started a private, church affiliated school. I spent my summers and after school hours during those earliest planning days in the graveyard flanking the old stucco church behind the school, which was in the church community hall basement, imagining the lives that had ended here, some tended with fond, familial ties, others, forgotten and dilapidated, like the dusty memories of a mind left unexercised, creating a fantasy play-yard like none other. It spurred my imagination and encouraged, albeit unintended, a path to history that would remain with me for life. Who were these people? Where in my small town and larger community had they lived? What were their lives like, and what circumstances left them here, mostly forgotten and ignored save for the pomp and circumstance of their initial burial services?
A zombie history of granite facts, marching back through the grassy paths like so many soldiers in formation, off to fight a war with unknown gods of their own imaginings.
I have my favorites.
There’s a small pioneer cemetery on a wooded hillside outside Calistoga, CA. that has always drawn me in. The steeply hilly growth of trees has overtaken the forest of stone and the mix is magic, a shaded glen full of distant explorers with which to commune for a few hours. While the rest of the Wine People are dining al fresco at chic boutique cafes, I, and whomever I have tagging along, grab a sandwich and bottle and settle in for a couple hours of our version of al fresco, communing with the souls of those who first ventured into this idyll of a valley, displacing the Indians and claiming the fertile land for future exploitation.
An npr story led me to another favorite, this one in Southern Oregon, in a town whose thoroughly Indian name, Yoncalla, had called to me often as I cruised up and down the I 5. Foreign to the tongue, harkening back to Wild West imagery, when I heard that there was a cemetery of literary note there, I ran for the book, devoured it, and made the pilgrimage finally to see the arching shade trees and weathered stones that she had spoken so eloquently of. There was someone else who shared a passion for the past lives and scattered histories of people, long gone, whose only markers where slowly melting into the earth as their corporeal selves had done long before.
But by far my favorite; vast, varied, minted in the Golden Age and constantly reimagined ever since; Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, CA.
I came to Mountain View through my friend Judy back in the 1970’s. I was a newly matriculated, freshly minted Californian having shrugged off the slow-southern-ways of my childhood and the effete-northern-trapping of my education to arrive, much like The Wizard, in the Land of Oz, San Francisco. (funny, I just had an aha moment that I will tie together in a future ramble but, suffice it say, Wizard has been an important name in my life, ever since this moment in time).
As a college educated, nomadically inclined child of the 60’s and 70’s, when I found San Francisco, I found home. But I also rapidly found that in order to continue to call it home, I needed to work..…a lot……so I did what thousands of others have done and continue to do, I got a job in a restaurant, several to be exact. While I sliced and diced and washed dishes in one, I was a breakfast cook in another and in yet a third I waited tables. But I was home. Home in this glittering, jewel-like, sunny kingdom of hedonism and Heliotrope.
One of my jobs, breakfast cook at The Palace Café, was in Oakland, lying on a shaded avenue under the serene gaze of the formidable Claremont Hotel and adjacent to the home of the zeitgeist of 60’s radicalism, UC Berkeley; Bezerkely.
On one of my first shifts, Judy, a waitress there, stopped in to check schedules, have coffee, and just to chat with the locals, we were a tradition there in Rockridge. She was wearing a “Squeeze a Fruit for Anita” T Shirt, which, if you weren’t around in the 70’s, was the height of politically correct logo-wear.
We were instant friends. We still are.
On my lunch hour, Judy suggested we go light up and send our minds wandering so she took me to Mountain View Cemetery and we strolled among the headstones, smoking a joint, telling the Days of Our Lives to each other and admiring the view of the City from the hills of this Oakland landmark.
The beauty stunned me, in no small part because I was quite stoned, but also the utter ‘foreignness” of this place, this state, this city, this Bay Area, and most assuredly, this marvel of carved and contrived stone art laid out exactly like the elegant meandering streets of the subdivisions these folks had created from raw wilderness and inhabited in life. Now, Frederick Law Olmstead, of Golden Gate and Central Park fame, had given them in death, the upper echelons of death with dignity.
There were mini-gothic cathedrals, mini-pyramids, mausoleums by the tonnage and family plots of huge headstones and amethyst-crowned obelisks that sprouted every imaginable iteration of angel, climbing vine, and heaven-aspiring, firmament raising exaltation known to the Modern Man that existed at the time.
And did I mention we were quite stoned?
Mountain View became a regular destination, and much like people go to Golden Gate Park or Central Park, Mr. Olmstead’s memorial park became my default relaxation public space. It was added to “the tour” of spots that ALL visitors to my new home were quickly taken, if only for the views of San Francisco in the late afternoon as the fog silently slipped in through the Gate while we basked in the warm sun of the Oakland hills.
To be completely candid, it also was a cheap excuse for me to exercise my as-yet-to-be-delineated passion for phantoms of stone. A true fetish was being born.
There is so much unsung talent and creativity and shear beauty in graveyards that exists without the benefit of anyone’s praise or loving gaze. What a waste.
There must be hundreds of different carved angels alone, sleeping, crying, flying, smiling……Angels with Hearts of Stone.
But even more than art and architecture, there exists in all cemeteries, and especially in my beloved Mountain View, a connection to feelings unseen and unknown but evident in windows of your soul if you linger long enough. Something serene and not at all somber. Something celebratory and life-affirming even in the blank face of death all around.
And so, soon enough, picnics were begun to be ,packed, wine was tipped back and afternoons were spent wandering among the far dead and nearly dilapidated as well as the meticulously groomed and timely tended. Stories wafted up from the stones like emanations from the sodden earth itself. Tales of too-young-gone children, screaming sorrow for love-lost spouses and neatly bookended tales of lives lived out in their fullest measure, together in life, never asunder in death.
It was rich, warm, electric, History come alive….amidst the coldest of marble and stone.
There was a particular large, flat, grave topper, perhaps 8’ x 4’, inscribed, in part; Beloved Mother and Father”. It became, of necessity, a perfect picnic plateau. We would lay out our charcuterie, cork a bottle or two, and spread out our beach towels on the warm grass and spend the afternoon lazily imaging the past and creating our own futures in peace and quiet while working on our perfect California tans.
Irreverent? We thought not, at all.
One day a park employee happened by and for whatever reason, his mood was not ours and he ordered us to leave; “This is not a park!! Only family members!”. Well, technically it is a park. Whatever.
Righteously indignant, we slowly donned our clothes and gathered up our feast and began to pack up the car.
An elderly woman in a sun bonnet carrying a basket and wearing garden gloves had been manning her hand shears in a plot nearby, enjoying the sun, tending her stone garden, and smiling occasionally at us as we enjoyed our own reverie. As the recalcitrant ranger drove away, she walked over to us with a purposeful gate;
“I heard what he said to you!” she said in genuine shock. “From now on, you are Honorary Long Family members and I would be proud to have you come enjoy the lovely weather in our family plot. Phooey on them!” “You tell them Emily Foster Long told you so!” “Now come spread out over here, I’m done for the day”.
And we did. I still visit the Longs every time I’m there and that was over 35 years ago now. Emily is now among her relations and I always wish her well.
I have experienced Mountain View in almost every possible iteration. I have wandered the bookishly beautiful aisles of the Julia Morgan designed columbarium, reading the spines of the brass “books” so see who lies on which shelf.
I have seen sunsets and sunrises from atop the steps of a pyramid
I have basked in the sun on the grounds of a cathedral, warmed from without and within by the ambient heat of the white marble walls.
I have climbed the walls and wandered, slightly spooked and horribly thrilled in the shades of shadows that come alive with their blue light and inner spirits at night.
I have even had sex under the full moon’s glare and that, I can say with certainty, is a fetish derived from years of experimentation and examination of my love of lives lived and the last remaining evidence of their passing through this world.
“I dig art. With a shovel. In the cemetery.
― Jarod Kintz
It is Gravely Important, to me.