This month, I’m writing words and posting images relating to the landscape of memory. I hope to write poems most days and also share photos, quotes, and more prosaic thoughts related in some way to memory, nostalgia, longing for place, remembering and forgetting, landscape, dreamscape, landscape’s memory and memory’s landscape, the intersection of the layered historical physical world with personal memory, the frames that both landscape and memory use to contain and order our focus, the landscape of childhood, the landscape of devastation, how memories lie and tell the truth, the fragmentation of memory, how landscapes shape us and our memories, and so on. All the posts will be linked to the Introductory Page as they are posted. Thanks for visiting.
Today, the cemetery as a landscape, in fact a garden landscape.
“… the snow had transformed the vast necropolis into an immaculate park, tranquil and soft, the way in Paris, sometimes, severe winters transformed the gardens into solitary cemeteries, black and white.” — Michel Serres, in his book Statues: The Second Book of Foundations (1987)
Garden or necropolis? Depends on what’s concealed underneath, what’s covered with earth, snow, stonework.
I’ve always enjoyed spending time in cemeteries. My father and I wandered in them when I was little, both cemeteries where family was buried (and where his headstone is located and some of his ashes were scattered) and graveyards in other places that we visited. Throughout my childhood, my sisters and I got used to these interesting side trips, a place to stretch our legs, have a sandwich, hunt for the strangest names and the most descriptive or mysterious deaths. As a teen I spent quite a bit of time in a few particular cemeteries, being moody and brooding, writing in my journal. And as an adult, graveyards were often the places my dad and I met up when driving from different directions to rendezvous, and they remain spots where I like to roam when I come upon one, when I’m on a trip, when I’m back in his hometown.
I do look at the headstones, grave ledgers, mausoleums, and other markers and think passingly about the people buried there, what their lives were like during the flu pandemic of 1918 or the 1820 Savannah yellow fever outbreak, the U.S. Civil War, during the 1940s and 1950s, and so on. I think about their offspring, widows and widowers, and parents. I think a lot about the many women who died in childbirth after bearing eight or nine other children (some of whom likely died as infants and children). I look at the stones bearing sculpted angels, girls, flowers, lambs; at the more idiosyncratic decorations such as a tiny putting green, etchings of a cat, dog, lacrosse sticks, golf clubs, horses, and photos of the deceased; those adorned with flags, Christmas ornaments, rocks and shells. I still look for strange names, coincidental deaths, and other oddities.
What really draws me there, though, is the sense of timelessness, or time-ful-ness perhaps, that permeates the place. As French philosopher Michel Foucault noticed, cemeteries are places of “temporal discontinuities”; the cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time, the end of each person’s life, and of eternity, life (or time) that endures forever. Cemeteries accumulate history, in individual slices, a sort of “museum of the dead,” and they also represent a complete break with time. Like driving along on the open road, as I wrote about a few days ago, walking or pausing in a cemetery puts us at an intersection, a space “between”: there’s a dislocation in time — we the currently living walk among the once living, we the not-yet dead walk among the already dead — that seems to open a space for the visible landscape to infiltrate the inner landscape and creates an atmosphere, often quite strongly felt, of being “haunted,” of being aware of the presence of something, or the absence of something perhaps.
It’s not always felt as eerily as described in this passage:
“… the ghost … is the damp, the darkness, the silence, the solitude; a ghost is the sound of our steps through a ruined cloister, where the ivy-berries and convolvulus growing in the fissures sway up and down among the sculptured foliage of the windows, it is the scent of mouldering plaster and mouldering bones from beneath the broken pavement; a ghost is the bright moonlight against which the cypresses stand out like black hearse-plumes, in which the blasted grey olives and gnarled fig-trees stretch their branches over the broken walls like fantastic, knotted beckoning fingers … Each and all of these things, and a hundred others besides, according to our nature, is a ghost, a vague feeling we can scarcely describe, a something pleasing and terrible which invades our whole consciousness.” — Vernon Lee aka Violet Paget in “Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art” (1898)
“Something pleasing and terrible which invades our whole consciousness” — perhaps the pleasant cozy feeling of not being dead, of surviving into today, and the terrible knowledge that one day will be different, we will not survive.
Even in this passage about the spooky atmosphere that can be felt in some places, particularly in “dislocated” places, mention is made of plant life pushing its way through stone, cement, or brick (“ivy-berries and convolvulus growing in the fissures” of the “ruined cloister”), of the cypress, olive, and fig trees growing around the graves, which brings me back to where I started, with the rhetorical question “garden or necropolis?”
Of course, a cemetery is always a garden of sorts. Sometimes elaborately so. In the 19th century, rural cemeteries were the rage as more burial grounds were located outside city limits due to health concerns and overcrowding. The first one in the U.S. was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, four miles from Boston along the Charles River. It was founded by members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831 and was “developed as a ‘domesticated landscape’ popularized by 19th century English landscape design. Its plan included retention of natural features like ponds and mature forests with added roads and paths that followed the natural contours of the land, as well as the planting of hundreds of native and exotic trees and plants.”
Even with a lawn cemetery — planted with grass, flat, easy for mowers to navigate — which came to popularity especially after World War II, there are often trees surrounding the site, hedges dividing sections. Many graveyards have eroding markers hosting lichen and moss; often ferns peer out or seem to flow freely from behind stones and bricks. Cemeteries are full of not only buried human bodies but also buried roots of other species: trees, shrubs, weedy species, flowers, and an extensive underground fungal network, strands of filaments. Species from all kingdoms (because of course there are bacteria here, and protozoa in any standing water) mingle past with present, memory and the moment, among the statues, the stonework, and beneath the feet of the living creatures.
A necropolis from the human standpoint is a living, breathing, lush world from the perspective of every other species. It’s a garden of graves.
Featured image: Central Burying Ground in Boston Common, Boston, MA, May 2015