Twenty years ago or thereabouts, when I was living in Kansas City, I’d drive up on the weekends to visit my Granny. We’d do laundry, watch movies, chat, and have French Silk Pie from Tippins. I believe it was Tippins, it was over 20 years ago. And back then I could actually eat French Silk Pie without sitting on the stool for 24 hours.
At any rate, every Memorial Day, we’d visit the graves. She’d bring an assortment of flowers, cut fresh from her garden, and chilled overnight in the fridge. Usually roses, which my Granny cross-bred, but a lily or a perennial would occasionally make it into the arrangement. There were two grave yards, one older one that was surrounded by trees and wildflowers on a country lane, and another new one with manicured lawns and places to hold urns. My Granny, who died in 2009, was laid to rest in the newer one – with the urns. For some reason, I always preferred the older one, it was more peaceful somehow…and had a sense of history to it. Some of its graves dated back to the Civil War, if not earlier.
Green Wood Cemetery in NYC is three times as big as those graveyards were, and a bit of a combination of the two. It’s well manicured – from what I saw on my walk, at least ten riding lawn mowers traverse it’s grounds on a weekly basis. Trimming and hedging the vast lawns. There are trees that are more than a century old. One white tree was covered with carvings, various hearts and names embedded in it’s trunk.
At the gate, they provide maps, which are sort of required due to its vastness and the rambling paths that can lead you, if you aren’t careful, in circles. On weekends it closes at 4 pm in my neck of the woods, but the main entrance, more than 30 blocks away, is open until 7pm.
The Cemetery was established in 1838. Henry Ward Beecher, Jean-Michael Basquiate, Samuel Morse, Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, Henry Chadwick, Lola Montez reside there, along with Leonard Berstein, and various other notables. Including, I believe Al Capone.
But for me, it’s just a quiet place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in a frenetic city that never appears to ground to a stop. No jogging, dogs, picnics, bikes, sunbathing, or motorcycles are permitted. On my multiple visits, I’ve seen joggers, bikers and dog walkers politely turned away by the guards. You can drive through it – but only at 20 miles per hour. After ten minutes of walking, you can make it to a section of the cemetery that is dead silent, with only the birds tweeting overhead. No human noises. Just the breeze pushing past the leaves or the soft tweet of a sparrow.
Walking through it, my head clears, my spine straightens, and I feel the earth beneath the pavement. Lost inside the silence. Alone but not alone with my thoughts. The dead are quiet. Lone gone. Their bodies ground to dust. Their grave stones markers for the living, to remember them. And occasionally visit, until they too are laid to rest. The older plots are rather simple, the big stone denoting the family name, with a host of smaller stones, providing markers for the individuals.
One, “BABY”, I paused beside for more than a few moments. Struck by the tragic simplicity of it. No name, no dates. Just “BABY” in big bold letters carved on the stone. I felt the pain of the parents staring at it. A loud unending pain of losing a child before the child is known. BABY rests by itself below a tree, the other family members buried staccato behind it. Another plot, had the separate headstones, FATHER, MOTHER, and then the first names of each child on headstones just below them.
It’s the oddest thing, walking through a cemetery surrounded by the living and the dead, on a glorious spring day, you feel grateful to be alive. Happy to bask beneath the sun. Free. And aware of how temporary everything is. Here today and gone tomorrow. Cemeteries, I think, are more for the living than the dead. A way of remembering those who have passed us by, and knowing that we too, one day will be remembered likewise.
I sit for a bit on a hill beneath a tree, on a stone bench. Surrounding me are headstones and trees, below my feet graves. And its so quiet. As quiet as I think you can get in a city of this magnitude. There is the occasional murmur of a passing car on the road below or muffled chatter of walkers, but other than that all I hear are birds and the breeze whistling through the leaves. No insects that I can see. It is a well-manicured cemetery.
Closing time is four pm. And my feet are weary. The guard waves at me as I pass him. We’re almost on a first name basis by now – this is the third time I’ve been here. I wander home through the maze of streets, and Sunday traffic. Stopping by a Foodtown to pick up groceries, and then wandering past various Indian restaurants and shops, with the signs in Indian and English announcing their wares.
My mind and heart clear once more, stress free, and filled with gratitude. I’m alive and I’m free to walk pain free through a quiet cemetery on a beautiful and sunny Sunday.