Do you dig graves?

15 06 2011

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.



5 responses

15 06 2011

Remember me as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Prepare for Death and follow me.

Please give my best to Tad–the menschiest mensch in early American history that ever lived.

16 06 2011
Jonathan Rees


This explains why he keeps saying nice things about you even though I’ve never seen him in the comments at your blog.

16 06 2011

HA! Don’t be fooled–Tad says nice things about everyone. He was a very generous and helpful commenter on an article I wrote 10 years ago, and was a tremendously helpful correspondant w/r/t the history of Northern New England (and specifically Maine history), about which he knows absolutely everything.

20 06 2011

I have to disagree that it’s all about vanity. I would say it’s all about family. I had to spend many school holidays being taken around graveyards across the world by my mother and told to find this name or that. Yes often we ahd to use paper and chalk rubbing to read inscriptions, but it’s really warming to find a family member in a small town somewhere halfway across the world, and pay our respects. In addition, many generations of my family share a plot in a particular city and we all feel warm that we’ll end up in the same spot with the rest of each other.

20 06 2011

livingdelilah, I don’t think Jonathan was making the argument that grave markers are about vanity. He was quoting the bible: Vanitas vanitatum, omina vanitas, as in Ecclesiastes and the art historical connection of death in vanitas paintings.

IOW, we are among the most impermanent things on the earth.

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