I had a fairly productive day.
My first act was to go to a local cemetery and do some tending. Mostly, from what I gather, the tending thing is about going to a graveyard and taking care of the needs of the dead: clearing away overgrown grass, fixing fallen over plants, and just generally making sure that all is on the up and up. It’s also an act of going to take care of the dead, the ones without family members around to care any longer. So, it’s also a sort of therapy session for the dead. Now, as to the cemetery that I chose, yesterday, this was next to unnecessary. The cemetery was still in use up until four years ago and there are still people who know and who care. (In June, we had a batch of tornadoes blow through here and destroy a lot in the town that I was in, specifically, quite a few headstones from said cemetery. A mason was out at some point and fixed as much of the gravestones as he could.) So, the cemetery that I chose wasn’t really forgotten.
The thing is that… when I go to tend graves, it’s not really just an act of cleaning and maintaining. That’s a part of it. Sometimes, I’ll stop and sit with a certain set of graves that obviously have no family. Sometimes, I’ll mourn the loss of said person like I would with a friend or family member. But, for the most part, I’m there to bring the reality of these people out and into the public eye. That’s why I bring the camera. The documentation is necessary to what I’m trying to accomplish here. And, honestly, they love it. I know that they do. And I don’t particularly blame them: I would love to be fawned all over by some semi-weird chick who traipsed about the cemetery from time to time. Plus? Hello? Taking pictures of headstones is so cool. Duh.
My very first act was to find the guardians of the graveyard. This was actually a lot easier than it had been when I went to Fuller Cemetery in Ludlow, but I think that’s because I knew to expect to see them this time around; I knew to look for them. There were two gravestones practically right on top of the fence at the middle entrance to the place. I had brought four pennies with me so that I could pay them. I don’t remember where I read this or even what the hell the tradition is about, but I knew that I wanted to give pennies to these two particular gravestones. I gave them two each. I also explained to them that I was there to document, to help people to remember who they are and how they died. The first gravestone (the one in the picture) was quietly amused… It was like, “Oh, yeah. Sure. Another one of you. Whatever. Thanks for the copper.” The second one was more like, “ZOMG! TAKE MY PICTURE!” I don’t think too many people were paying attention to that family monument…
The cemetery itself is not that large. It’s on a very busy road and behind it is the local high school. Since the tornadoes, they had new fences built to keep people out. All across the front was a big, white, safety fence made of plastic. It was like, you really needed to want to get in there. There was no parking lot, either, so I had to park on the street. (I was more than nervous since I had to wedge my car up a hill so it wouldn’t get hit by traffic.)
When I first walked in, I was shocked to see newer headstones, but then, as my eyes adjusted to the setting sun and the sheer number of graves, I began to see the older headstones. Yet, there were newer headstones but some of them were well taken care of older ones, some were new ones, and others were replacements for others that had been broken by vandals or other heartless people… or, Mother Nature. A little bit, it reminded me of a multi-colored version of Arlington National Cemetery. It wasn’t that there were white stones (as seen from the picture) laid out in military precision. It was the way that the eye turns things into a scope that is beyond what the mind can measure. It felt like the interments could go on and on and on for all eternity. It really boggled my mind and it made me happy that there were people out there, in that town, that cared enough to keep tending them. It made me happy to see fresh placards and lovingly placed veteran flags. It made me feel like I wasn’t the only one who remembered.
As I went combing up and down the aisles, fascinated and frightened and saddened and cheered, I wanted to document everything. I think the first thing that pricked my heart was a large monument that was a good six-foot or taller. I had seen it in the distance and just assumed that it was a large monument for someone with money, as there were quite a few of them there. However, as I got closer, I realized that it was a multi-purpose one: It was to commemorate three deaths. The stone read, “In memory of three unfortunate children of Mr. Levi and Mrs. Martha Bliss, Viz, …Gordon, aged 28; Leonard, 22; Asenath 16 years, who were drowned in nine mile pond in this town, April 29 AD 1799.” I can’t make out what the bottom of the stone read because it was in that old script from back then, but it was definitely beautifully wrought.
My next discovery threw me for a loop. Now, I knew that the town of Wilbraham was old, as it was incorporated in 1763, though originally settled in 1730 or thereabouts. And, as evidenced by the first picture I posted, I knew when the cemetery had been founded. However, most of the graves in the central aspect of the graveyard were from the 1800s. So, I was thrown backwards when I happened up on these two lonely graves off on their own.
They were to the side and I had been seeing them from the corner of my eye, all alone and simple, for quite some time. The gravestones weren’t the originals (probably more things obliterated by the tornadoes in June). They were fresh and pretty, which is part of the reason why they caught my eye. As I finally made it over there, I just froze and whispered to myself, “Oh, oh. When was the last time you had visitors?” The graves were from Revolutionary War veterans and it was then, that all of the veteran flags really started to snap to my attention. I was used to Civil War, as was seen with the few veterans at Fuller Cemetery, but this has been my first experience with men who had fought to create this country. I was knocked speechless and dumb. I want to go back and spend time with those two men. These two graves, one for Caesar Mirick and Joseph Cutt, were the best graves I have ever come across (thus far) on this journey of mine.
There were a few obvious children’s graves, as well. I can’t think back to their being very many children’s graves in Ludlow, so this was really the first time I’ve had to face this fact. I have a difficult time with children’s graves because it’s always a not-so-subtle reminder that they didn’t get to live long enough. The first one, in the picture above, was for a baby who had lived for an entire day. This flat headstone was almost lost and buried amid all of the older gravestones in that corner of the cemetery. It was like they just needed a simple spot large enough for this poor child. I can’t even begin to imagine the sadness and horror and depression that must have happened because this child never reached the potential hopes and dreams his parents had for him. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like or the circumstances behind this dead. Was he born at full term? Was he too early? Why did he die? There are so many questions when you stand over a child’s grave, but of course, there really aren’t that many answers. All I know is that even after twenty-one years, I’m sure both parents still feel the loss and ache strongly. This baby’s grave… it really hurt.
And the thought of that child hurt, but it didn’t cut me nearly so much as the next one that I stumbled upon some time later. I had been coming across quite a few families in various areas. There were family plots, of course, but this one family—the Bliss Family—was all over the graveyard and various little huddles. The grave that hurt the worse… This is the grave of Daniel Bliss. He was the son of Aaron and Elizabeth Bliss. He died when he was three years old… the same age as my son. (Can you see what I started to cry at this one?) Right next to him is his older brother, aged seven. These two graves were placed together for all eternity and in front of them, the parents lay like two vultures ready to scratch out your eyes if you so much as look at them wrong. It’s like the mother and father, Aaron and Elizabeth, are the first line of defense for these two young boys, even in death. It was at this grave that things started to work in my brain. You know, I knew that having children back then was risky, but that realization was never more prominent than it was standing in front of Aaron and Daniel’s graves yesterday.
There were a lot of family monuments throughout the left-most section of the graveyard. They were obvious family plots that were either used, forgotten, or sold off. I’ve never seen a family plot before this week when TH and I went to his stepfather’s mother’s funeral. (They have a family plot.) I think that’s mostly because my really real experience of graveyards had to do with the one that my father is built at. That graveyard is fairly new and has only flat headstones, so even if there was a ‘family section’ it wouldn’t be particularly obviously unless you happened up on it… literally underfoot. The family plot in the picture was cordoned off by metal railings on other side of the headstones and then down around where the foot stones would have been. There was only the simple three headstones on one giant monument. There was clear space to either side, but evidently, the rest of the Jones family didn’t partake in the whole shebang. It was a little sad that they had space for at least three to four more graves, but no one in their family wanted to be buried with them.
I think my favorite family monument was the Bruuer family monument. (The original form of ‘Brewer’ would be my guess.) It was huge and in-your-face. If the person had been alive today and put that up, there would have been chatter about how the family was obviously making up for such a “small status.” I mean, the thing was at least twice my height. There were four cornerstones in a large rectangle all around the family plot. Each cornerstone was hand-carved with a capital B on the top. I made sure to not pass those B’s since it was obviously a very important plot. And besides, I really find it disconcerting to end up standing on the dead. Each headstones along the right hand side had the initials of the dead family member across the top. That was it, though, so unless you knew who was buried where… you could only guess at whose graves they were.
You know, I did this because it was in honor of Papa Ghede. I did this because I wanted to honor him as he deserves it for choosing me. However, it’s only as I was leaving the cemetery and realizing how fun, invigorating, sad, and joyful my time there was… It was only then that I realized, or hoped really, that if even if Monsieur Ghede had not chosen me, then perhaps, maybe, I would still be doing this. My mom says that even though she was doing her graveyard hunting for genealogy projects she had started, she always enjoyed going to graveyards because they were quiet and no one was going to bother you. And to be perfectly frank, realizing how long this person has left the earth or how long that person has been gone… It’s really awe-inspiring. It makes you realize just how mortal everyone and everything is.
I can only hope that the snow is put off for some time longer so that I can document more of the older cemeteries in my area.
(For anyone interested in seeing the whole album., instead of just my highlights.)
I understand the sadness about the babies one. I still get all choked up when I see that one small little gravestone to the side of the big cemetery in Becket. Jesse. Lived for one day. It’s heart wrenching.
I’m glad that you are finding you own peace and enjoyment out of these outings. They seem to really center you a lot. Perhaps that is all you needed for the whole grounding thing. It seems like you come back from it invigorated, yet down to earth.
Maybe that’s true. I mean, coming back from them I feel alive. I think it was a really good idea for me to have done this and then practiced a bit o’ magic.
Your unreadable gravestone says;
Pleasant they lived, nor did their pleasures.
Each day presented some new scene of joy.
By nature near, nearer by love allied
No chance could part them nor Stern death divide
Together they, they their hapless fate bemoaned
Together languished, and together groaned.
Together too the unbodied spirits fled
and fought the unknown regions of the dead
Thank you for this.
This is absolutely beautiful, I’d love to come visit this cemetery!
I’ve been going to cemeteries, tending and paying respects, since I was 15 years old, long before the Ghede called me (or, perhaps, a sign that they would?) or before the Dark Queen beckoned me. I think graveyards and history are beautiful, and hold a draw for the magical and mundane alike. I fully think that you’d be there anyways.
What folks don’t realize is what the Ghede really are- the untended, forgotten dead. It is in this realization that one finally understands that it’s not just Papa Ghede or Baron Samedi or Maman Brigitte that you are serving, but the memory, and the history, of those graves untended and unloved. No matter how long their mortal remains have been in the ground, those spirits are still in some kind of existence. It is those hungry, forgotten ghosts that take your offerings along side Papa and Baron.
This makes me more interested in doing grave-tending as a job… It would be like I’m working with my spirituality, you know?
Most grave keeps are volunteer, sadly. There’s very little money for restoration of cemeteries, let alone paying the staff that restores or the people who keep things neat. I feel like we’re rewarded indirectly for our services.
To be honest, I don’t even know if there are any companies like that up here. I saw a bunch in southern states, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything in the northeast.