At spring, our thoughts turn to cemeteries.
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland of her childhood, it was LW’s family’s custom to visit the graves of relatives on Easter Day. These pilgrimages were part of a colorful holiday that began with the inspection of the golden world of one’s Easter basket through a sheet of yellow cellophane. A sampling of its contents was followed by the nuzzling and fondling of live baby chicks (biddies), brought in from the kitchen in long flat boxes. Then it would be time to dress up in new clothes that, for LW, always included white gloves and a hat with a very annoying, soon to be frayed elastic chin strap. A three-choir service at Asbury Methodist Church preceded a fiercely-raced Easter Egg Hunt in the Park. And at some point in the day, relatives were visited and meals eaten. (One year, the family drove to an archery range to shoot arrows, an activity which, to my mind, would have been a more appropriate for Valentine’s Day.)
The trip to the cemetery added a touch of delicious melancholy to an otherwise over-bright day, a melancholy prefigured in the chocolate cross the Easter Bunny included in LW’s basket every year. (Presumably he wished to import some religious value into the pagan mix of hollow chocolate rabbits, foil-wrapped eggs, jelly beans, and marshmallow chicks.) The chocolate cross looked much like this one, right down to the lilies:
So it is understandable that LW would experience a frisson of that same delicious melancholy upon reading the second chapter of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This is the part where Savannah native Mary Harty mixes martinis in a silver shaker, packs them with a pair of silver goblets in her wicker basket, and announces to author John Berendt that they are going to visit the dead. She takes him to Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, the cemetery where the “Bird Girl” statue that graces the cover of Midnight once resided before being removed to a local museum. It was not, however, where Danny Hansford, the young hustler who Jim Williams shot in his study, was actually buried. Later in the book, Berendt takes the liberty of relocating Hansford’s grave to Bonaventure presumably to make the midnight visit by “root doctor” Minerva seem even more eerie and surreal. In fact, he bends the truth in Midnight to a degree that annoys LW, who can be very literal-minded. However, as a library, I enjoy a good story myself.
All this put the Bonaventure Cemetery high on LW’s list of places to visit on our recent Savannah trip. I have my own interest in cemeteries, so I was glad to tag along in spirit in the late afternoon of a perfect spring day.
Bonaventure Cemetery did not disappoint. LW’s friend VL drove us down its winding roads beneath a canopy of live oaks. Azaleas and other bushes in bloom added vivid splashes of color to what had once been the grounds of an old plantation. They exited the car several times to take pictures of the beautiful tombstones and statuary. A soft wind blew off the river, causing the Spanish moss to trail, shroud-like, from the tree branches. It was quiet, almost closing time, the time for spirits to rise…and read?
Some see cemeteries as gardens; others, as cities of the dead. I see libraries. The tombstones are the books. They give you the name of the departed and sometimes the deceased’s birth and death dates, relationship to the family group, and, if you’re lucky, an epitaph. The choice of marker or statuary can also be revealing, as is the placement of the grave in respect to others and the landscape. You read what you can into these “books”; perhaps, like John Berendt with Midnight, you will want to help the stories along. Sometimes I wish tombstones were even more book-like with something like—dare I say it?–a weather-proof, solar-powered e-book embedded into the stone that could provide visitors with a full biography or at least an obituary of the departed.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for the mysteries suggested by some grave markers and statuary. This face, for instance:
What to make of the young woman over whose grave this statue presides with sightless eyes? Was the statue fashioned to look like her? The statue marks the grave of Corinne Elliott Lawton, the daughter of a Confederate brigadier general and railroad magnate. Some accounts, labeled as family or local legend, have it that Corinne drowned herself in the river the night before an impending marriage to someone her family chose for her, thus denying her life with the (lower class) man she loved. Some say she died in a boating accident. A condolence letter suggests she passed away after a short illness, but that sounds like a cover story to me. (If anyone can find an obituary, let me know.)
Her epitaph reads: “Allured to brighter worlds and led the way,” which sounds as if she found her own world not so bright and left it by choice. But I may be reading too much into it. Oh, for a book—or at least a much more revealing epitaph!
Jim Williams, according to the epilogue of Savannah’s Jim Williams & His Southern Houses, believed that “Spirits of past events cling fast to their native locale, never leaving.” That may be so, but when spirits cling fast to books, they can travel further than one might think, and with company.