Neil: Yeah, they’re alright.
I never thought I dug graves until I spent some time in a seventeenth century graveyard in downtown Salem, Massachusetts with my friend Tad Baker. Those graves offer a terrific window into society long past, but I’ve come to realize once again that I have absolutely no interest in ever being buried under one.
Longtime readers (are there any?) will know I’ve already expressed this sentiment before after reading River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit as a result of Flora Muybridge (Edweard Muybridge’s estranged wife) ending up in a mass grave in a scruffy field behind a California multiplex. But what happens to you and your headstone even if you aren’t reburied near a shopping mall? Yes, if you made it to the town cemetery in Salem, people like me will visit your headstone, but what exactly does that headstone look like after all these years?
It might look like this:
Yes, some graves were just markers and we’re supposed to have writing on them but that one in the back is awfully big for that, don’t you think? I figured those markers would look more like this [Notice the dried up leaf there for perspective – Yes, I meant to do that]:
If you and twenty other people are buried under that, what’s the point? Nobody will ever know it’s you down there. To make matters worse, according to Tad, the headstones at this particular graveyard have been moved around several times by nineteenth century people who really liked order.
Suppose you were a rich Puritan, and you got one of those expensive graves. This is the headstone of one of the Salem witchcraft judges:
Less than four hundred years later and someone has to help you out by encasing the thing in cement! Four hundred years is not a lot of time in the great scheme of things, people. You can’t fight erosion; you can only postpone the inevitable. That’s why this grave is the one that cracks me up the most:
That’s the grave of Salem Witchcraft victim George Jacobs, discovered in the 1950s during the construction of a local shopping mall and reburied in the Nurse family graveyard on the Rebecca Nurse (another victim of the hysteria) Homestead maybe ten or fifteen years ago. The funny thing about that twentieth century Puritan headstone is that in a couple of hundred years nobody is going to be able to tell the difference between it and the Puritan original. Unfortunately, the Nurse Homestead is maintained by the Danvers Alarm Company, the shakiest of non-profit groups staffed entirely by volunteers. They’re really nice people and I wish them the best, but I’m afraid that the twenty acres of suburban Boston upon which that graveyard is located will eventually become the sight of another shopping mall.
Hardcore Unitarian that I am, I really don’t know much about the religious reasons for headstones or burial in graveyards at all, but I do know this: All is vanity, people. All is vanity.