While I was at the OAH last week, I picked up a copy of River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit. It’s a wonderful book; kind of a meditation on the life of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his contributions to the technology of photography and technology and general. Nevertheless, I can’t help dwell on the fate of his wife.
Flora Muybridge is pictured above. She was half Edweard’s age and mostly unhappy in marriage it seems because her husband was absent all the time photographing landscapes and more than a little nuts thanks to a carriage accident. She took a lover, had a baby and when Muybridge found out that the baby wasn’t his, he shot the lover dead. Muybridge was acquitted, Flora divorced him and she died of typhoid at an early age.
A better blogger than I would probably spin that last paragraph into a wonderful post all by itself, but I want to focus on this from the end of Solnit’s book:
Flora Muybridge is buried behind the United Artists Multiplex Cinema in Colma, California. In many California coastal Indian theologies, souls travel west over the Pacific after death, and west of nineteenth-century San Francisco was a quartet of large cemeteries, a city of the dead. Flora was among the San Franciscans who were buried there from the 1860s to the turn of the twentieth century, when the expanded city decided there was no longer room for its past and banned burials. A few decades later, city workers began to exhume the bodies so that the graveyards, which had grown wild and weedy, could be recycled into real estate. The dead were sent a dozen or so miles south to Colma, the cemetery city that is now also a city of big-box stores on the San Francisco peninsula, and their tombstones were recycled as landfill and building material. The exact location of Flora’s remains is inked in an old ledger book at the Greenlawn Cemetery, but she is buried with hundreds of others in a scruffy field behind United Artists marked only by a single marble monument rising from the weeds.
I knew the Romans recycled tombstones hundreds of years after the fact, but what was that altogether, maybe 70 years? Seriously, what’s the point of getting buried when nobody will know you ever existed after a generation or two? I’ve been to some of the oldest cemeteries around Boston and even though you can still read some of the grave markers, most of the stones there are still gone.
I say let your works be your monument. Stones are no better than paper in the great scheme of things.