I park the van at the top of Section C, and my daughter and I get out into the rain. The spongy ground slopes away from us to the road below, speckled with headstones that are, in turn, speckled with lichen. Already my daughter bends over one, wipes the drizzling rain off its surface, and reads a name aloud.
About this cemetery hangs a pleasant sense of disorder. Stones shaped like benches, pillars, or pensive children kneel in the grass, half-sunken where the ground beneath them has settled; moss laps at their edges. Certain monuments here are notorious, like the massive stone angel who has, with her attendant urban legends, nearly eclipsed the family she was meant to memorialize. Broken stones lean in pieces against cottonwood trees whose burly roots slowly shoulder the soil away.
Unlike another local cemetery, which styles itself as a “memorial park” and offers natural burial as well as farewell tributes, death is still a presence here, not an unpleasant thought to be sponged away with rebranding. I feel comfortable saying “tombstone” here, or “grave.” As in, “Look at this grave!”—which I call to my daughter when I find one carved to resemble a scroll draped over a log and slicked with real moisture, real moss. She is at my side in a moment and together we puzzle out the inscription.
It is beautiful, but it is not his.Grave 8-a
Since I was a kid, our local cemetery has been one of my favorite places—eerie and beautiful, sodden with history and urban legends. I used to walk through it on my way to college; the girls and I go often to explore; I gravitate toward the cemetery when I want to be alone. It was the first place we met my mom for a walk during quarantine, and it was there, one snowy evening twenty years ago, that Mitch and I confessed that we had, you know, feelings for each other.
Yet one of my most bewitching trips came about a few years ago, when my eldest daughter and I went the cemetery on a quest for knowledge. I wrote an essay about that trip, and The Rabbit Room (hooray!) kindly published that essay today.
This essay took over two years (off and on) to write, partly because it took me about that long to figure out what I was trying to say, and partly because I just had so much fun researching it. I learned about churchyard lichens, and about a spree of vandalism in our cemetery years ago. I spooked myself—pretty thoroughly and deliciously—researching the origins of those urban legends I grew up hearing. I know now about “grave wax” (don’t google it!) and about how long it takes a human body to decompose—in short, I learned far more about death and our cemetery than I actually needed to put into the essay, and yet I think every bit of that knowledge (except maybe the bit about grave wax) helped the story get where it was going.
And where it was going is here. (Thank you for reading!)
Note: The cemetery featured in the photo at the top of this post is actually not our local cemetery, but my other favorite cemetery: Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts. I would have shown you our beloved local haunt (pun intended!) but . . . I ran into issues with the photo quality. I hope you’ll forgive the substitution.