Cemeteries have always fascinated me, as far back as I can remember, the older, the better. There were at least two very old cemeteries in Duxbury, the small town about 30 miles south of Boston where I spent first, second and part of third grade. One of them, where my mother also is buried, is the final resting spot of Myles Standish. Stepping into one of these old, old grave yards is like stepping out of time for me, especially when it is filled with the ancient and worn slate stones, with their archaic script and fire-and-brimstone imagery.
One of my favorite places in Chicago has long been Graceland Cemetery (opened about 100 years before Elvis moved into his Memphis mansion). This grave yard is more like a well-groomed public sculpture park than a gloomy slasher-movie setting. It’s surrounded by several very busy streets and an elevated train track, but step through its wrought-iron gates and you might feel yourself transported into the gardens of some wealthy steel magnate. This is all the more appropriate since some of Chicago’s wealthiest former residents now call this address home. The grandest memorial, set waterside along the banks of a small manmade pond, is the open Greek Temple built for Potter Palmer, founder of the Palmer House Hotel, and his beloved wife Bertha (her family, the Honores now rest right across the small street fronting the Palmer temple). Wander the narrow paved roads of Graceland, and you’ll also come across memorials for many of Chicago’s most important architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Daniel Burnham, John Root and Louis Sullivan – whose Getty tomb, also in Graceland, is considered one of the pre-eminent examples of the first Chicago School of Architecture’s design principles.
Of course, Cape Cod is filled with any number of smaller, old-fashioned graveyards (the prefered term, instead of “cemetery,” here, I’ve been told). Some like the amazing Old Burial Ground, in back of the First Parish Unitarian Church in Brewster, are in the center of town or behind prominent churches. Others, like the Pine Grove cemetery, set in the woods off a community of mostly summer residences, are scattered and isolated, set up on hills or nearly forgotten in wooded groves. These remind me of the old grave yard in Thornton Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corners, where once-active members of a tightly knit community now lie forgotten.
I think the thing that draws me into these spaces, more than the beauty of a well-carved stone, is the preternatural silence that seems to embrace them, no matter how urban the surrounding area may be, and the notion that each marker holds the story of a life within it. Crack that stone open and you could learn of the shores Capt. John Nickerson saw in his seventy and seven years – of the treasures he brought back to his wife, and the storms through which he led his ships. Break another, and you would learn who wept as little John Simpkins, aged 2 years and 1 month, was laid into the earth – what prayers his mother whispered – and what flowers or small mementos lay with him – as the first shovelful of dirt fell upon his coffin? Sit and simply listen in one of these ancient and sacred places, and that ever-present quiet can seem to give way to a cacaphony of voices, each saying, “I lived, sit here and I will tell you how.”