I love to poke around old graveyards. Partly because they’re often located in beautiful places, but mostly because they’re full of stories. Real-life stories short enough on details to give my imagination a work-out.
In the second half of the 19th century graveyards were often favorite spaces to spend leisure time. People took afternoon walks in cemeteries, visiting loved ones and even picnicking amid the stones. Some cemeteries, such as Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts and Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were designed by famous landscapers and architects, to maximize the experience for visitors.
But it’s the stories I come for. I could see them all as sad stories, I suppose, since they’ve all ended in death – sometimes after many decades, sometimes after just a few weeks. Some of the most poignant stories can be read in the graves of children, sometimes more than one in the same family. Reading the dates may hint at an epidemic that swept through the entire town. It’s not unusual to find consoling or admonitory verses on 19th century stones – sometimes excerpts from old hymns, or original poems written to memorialize the individual buried there. Once in a while the words indicate the cause of death. I’ve seen gravestones stating the deceased was killed in an explosion while digging a well, and one who was described traveling to restore his health only to die in Italy.
But I don’t think they’re all sad. There’s so much more than death there – there’s faith and hope in the words and the engravings. And love. That’s what comes through to me with the most power. The love.
Whenever I visit a graveyard I come away feeling overwhelmed by all the stories. I’m aware that beneath each stone lies the remains of what was once a living, breathing human being, a person whose life – whether long or cut short by illness or accident – profoundly touched other lives. A person who was loved.
I recently saw a photo of my great-grandfather as an infant, a man I never knew, and in fact knew very little about. Sitting beside him in the perambulator is his twin sister, who died at the age of two, probably not long after the photo was taken.
I imagine her death affected my grandfather and it surely affected his parents. Her short life became part of the family story that came down to me in subtle ways I wasn’t even aware of. I’ve never visited her grave. I don’t even know where she’s buried. But I kind of hope that at some point a stranger walked by her stone and stopped long enough to try to read her story.