Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the Warpath: Images of Indian Cemeteries

Agency Mission Cemetery
JFK was our first minority president. It’s hard to picture that wavy-haired youth, stylish First Lady, Camelot and all, being our first minority President, but he was: Catholic. It’s hard to picture Catholics as a minority. Isn’t the Pope Catholic? Don’t they have all of South America? How can they be a minority?
Chief Schonchin Cemetery
Nonetheless, during his campaign it was a mighty issue and one that threatened to derail him, much as Obama’s milk chocolate skin. The 2012 elections showed how much the demographics of the country have changed in the ensuing half-century since Kennedy. Now, all those little minorities have morphed into one majority. Suddenly, a putative black man represents the face of America today. The WASP days are definitely on the wane. Adios and good riddance.
Agency Cemetery
Catholic? Black? We almost had a Mormon, funny underwear and all. So when will there be a Jewish President, already? Heck, the way the country is going, we’ll soon have a gay Latina running the place. Let’s see her bomb Afghanistan. Asian? Why not?

Anybody but an Indian. You can’t be President if you’re from another nation. Sorry, guys, it’s the way they wrote the laws; you wanna be President, you have to be a Native-American, not a Chippewa, or a Paiute, or a Mohican. You have to be a plain old anybody from Anywhere, USA.
Indian Cemetery - Husum
Not that one couldn’t be born on a reservation and become President of the United States, that’s perfectly legal (I think). What one can’t do is spend one’s life fighting for status as a sovereign nation and then want to be President of ours. I don’t think the rest of us minorities (hey, I’m a minority now) are going to want to vote for someone who’s perennially pissed off at us.
Agency Cemetery
Jesus, how did that happen? How come one minority is shut out of the game? Oh sure, it’s PC to idolize the Indians, these days; but when it comes to having them do anything for us besides building casinos and being a tourist attraction, they are—I’m going to say this—low on the totem pole. And for sure, it’s not their fault. In fact, it’s no one’s fault; it’s just the way history rolled out: sometimes you’re the victor, sometimes you’re the loser. Happens to us all.
Paiute II Cemetery
What doesn’t always happen is that the losers don’t always get shunted away onto reservations which are mythical sovereign nations. They are, of course, nothing like nations (built on unemployment, casinos, and alcohol)  much less sovereign, but it’s a comfortable fiction for both sides. Unfortunately, rather than giving the Indians independence, respectability, and a place among the nations of the world, we gave them a ghetto thousands of acres broad. It couldn’t be helped. It was a product of the times. A couple hundred years earlier and the Indians would have simply melted into the rest of the population. Setting them aside on barren tracks of land and giving them the illusion of independence has kept them from successfully joining the mainstream. Of course, the Indians don’t want to join the mainstream, but that’s pride talking, not wisdom.
Chief Schonchin Cemetery
The result is they’re stuck on reservations set aside from the rest of the country, and because of those reservations, will never be able to fully join the body Americana. The curse of an inappropriate gift. They are welded to the memory of a dream-time long since vanished under the wagon wheels of settlers. It is, alas, one more legacy of farming. Farmers grow many people and big armies and they always need more land. No tribal society can withstand the march of the plow. It’s a story 10,000 years in the making.
Paul Washington Cemetery
It makes for an uncomfortable truce. Reservations have quasi autonomy, and the lack of true autonomy creates a never ending undercurrent of tension between people from the rez and those from beyond. Us. There is, as far as I can tell, no solution. The pattern is set; the lines are clearly drawn; there’s no going back. No one’s about to give up their reservation and government support. It’s all they have left. Except, of course, for their pride. (If I were them, I’d concentrate on building community colleges instead of casinos, but what do I know?) Likewise, you can be sure the farmers aren’t going to give up their land. Or their government support.
Paul Washington Cemetery
Indian graveyards don’t have to be on reservation land to have an unworldly feel to them. Given, each graveyard is different from any other graveyard just as any human is different from any other human, but upon entering an Indian graveyard one immediately knows they’re in a place apart from the common. In those carefully crafted windows onto a community’s soul, an alien gestalt wraps around the mounds covering the dead. This is not your farmer’s graveyard.
St. Andrews Cemetery
The emotions surrounding an Indian cemetery are complex and strong. How they feel about them and how they feel about outsiders visiting them is writ in the “no trespassing” signs one sees at many of them. There are other gated and locked cemeteries out there, but they’re rare. By far, most cemeteries are open to whomever happens by; nice for visitors and vandals alike. Part of the problem with visitors to Indian cemeteries is that the cemeteries have suffered an inordinate amount of vandalism through the years, much of it sanctioned for and paid for by prestigious American universities and museums. Americans went through Indian graveyards like the British through Greece, stealing everything they could get their hands on. The Americans, though, weren’t content with just grave goods; they went so far as to steal whole bodies; skulls, if nothing else.
Agency Mission Cemetery
Casting one blanket over all the Indian tribes, of course, doesn’t do justice to the diversity of cultures found in a land as varied as the Oregon Territory. Coastal tribes lived a significantly different lifestyle than did those from the interior. Nez Perce were distinct from the Paiute. Each had its own culture and nuances, and each treated their dead in a different manner; distinctions which had to be submerged in the move to reservations that combined tribes, not only quite different from each other, but sometime mortal enemies. Life in pre-American Oregon Territory was no Rousseauian idyll. There may not have been many Indians left after diseases ravaged their peoples, but for those who were left, peace settled over the land like snow. One could finally walk the breadth of the Territory without fear of being killed. Nonetheless, it’s only fair to warn you, being an outsider in an Indian cemetery can cause trouble. Inadvertent as it may be, your very presence can be an irritant; and many Indians are disturbed that outsiders would want to visit their cemeteries, much less take pictures of them. I once stirred up a hornet’s nest by innocently asking a tribal historian if there was someone who could talk to me about the changes in burial practices that they’ve gone through since the arrival of the Americans. They were outraged to find I’d been taking pictures of their cemetery, not to mention writing about them. This very article will, undoubtedly, put some of them on edge. The general gist was that no one should talk about or write about Indians without being an expert and preferably Indian. Sort of like one shouldn’t write about highways without being a traffic engineer.

Okay, so shoot me.
Agency Cemetery
Beyond that, though, Indian cemeteries are interesting for the large amount of personal items that tend to be left at graves. Grave site decoration is becoming more and more prevalent in the U.S., despite the sextons’ eternal battles to maintain the place; but rarely is it encouraged to bloom the way it does at Indian cemeteries. They can be bewildering. The first one I experienced—one that my wife and I happened to stumbled upon at the side of a highway—we had to spend some time looking at to even decide that it was a cemetery; our first impression was confusion because it seemed like no place for a junk yard, yet there was a staggering variety of things strewn about. Finally, clues here and there led us to understand the nature of the place.
Paiute II Cemetery
I believe I was wrong about my first impressions, which included the idea that this small cemetery alongside the road represented the disintegration of Indian culture in the face of the onslaught. I no longer think that. If the historian had taken the time to talk to me, I’d probably have understood it sooner. What it represents, I’ve gathered from further reading and observation, is the continuation of age-old traditions with an overlay of American-Christian practices. Indian cemeteries before the appearance of the white man were equally strewn with grave objects, personal items of the deceased. One of the reasons for the enmity between the Indians and the invaders is that the invaders saw the cemeteries as ripe for the picking. For a long time, it had been custom among many tribes to put the deceased in canoes; but after the arrival of the Americans they had to start smashing holes in the bottoms of the canoes so they wouldn’t be stolen. It’s easy to see why they’re reluctant to have Americans in their cemeteries.
Old Agency Cemetery
The Indians who railed against me never seemed to understand that I shoot cemeteries. All and every cemetery. The proportion of Indian cemeteries in my portfolio is minuscule. I wasn’t emphasizing them or zoning in on them. I wasn’t elevating them or demeaning them; I was just showing their cemeteries along with everybody else’s. Still am. I’m sorry they got pissed, but I figure it’s their problem. I gotta keep doing what I gotta do; they gotta keep doing what they gotta do.
Paul Washington Cemetery
It’s a cautionary tale for those of you who might be inspired to search out Indian cemeteries in your area. Like all cemeteries, they’re endlessly fascinating and some of the more colorful graveyards around. It would be nice if someone would shoot the different styles from around the country, but it would be a touchy subject. It’s not a job for an outsider.
Indian Cemetery - Husum

Friday, December 7, 2012

Vandals, Huns, and Visigoths

Jonathan asked: “Have you ever done anything on graveyard vandalism? Forgive me if you have and I missed it. I know you like the uprights, but they invite wackoes to knock them over.”

No, Jonathan, I haven’t; and I’ve been pondering that ever since you asked: “What could I say about vandalism”? Other than it’s fucking stupid?

For the purposes of the blog or Flickr, I don’t record vandalism, other than occasionally. It tends to be a given in any cemetery to one degree or another. The most successful cemeteries on combatting vandalism are Jewish cemeteries (at least around here) which often have resident caretakers; the surest protection known. Larger, more expensive cemeteries have a degree of immunity, but are not entirely safe. Every cemetery is at risk. Small, unattended, rural cemeteries are ripe fodder for disenfranchised youth (vandals are most often young).

If the vandals are not young, I’d suggest that a more sinister motive is in play: bigotry. Certainly, bigotry can be a motive for the young, as well, but sheer indifference and mischief making are heavy factors, too. Tell the Jews about bigotry and cemetery destruction.

The practical question is how to combat it. Punishment is probably ineffective and pointless and, at best, after the fact. If one is always paying for the pound of cure, one never gets to the ounce of prevention. There are many practical steps one can take to make one’s cemetery less inviting to vandals, such as trimming up the bushes and keeping lines of sight open, which are undoubtedly good advice. In general, the better the maintenance, the less vandalism. Vandals are less likely to target places they think are under observation.

For rural and pioneer cemeteries, your best bet is to make the communities “own” the cemeteries; and by “own,” I don’t mean “have physical title to,” I mean “own” in the sense of “having, with pride, accepted responsibility for.” Involve the community in making the cemetery a place of community, not just a repository for dead people. Get the community to care about the cemetery. Have classes and school clubs take up maintenance. Do things in the cemetery. Have art shows, plays, concerts. Hire local graffiti artists to do art/promotions. Bring your history to the cemetery. Do whatever you can to involve the neighbors in believing they have both a treasure and a sacred place on their hands.  You’re never going to win it all, but you can make a big dent.

The tougher problem is altering one’s views on the origins of vandalism, in the first place. Or, for that matter, the origins of social deviance and what to do about it. One’s views determine one’s response.

One response is punishment for acts of transgression. Punishment has two components: revenge and behavioral modification. Our legal system, if I understand it correctly, operates almost entirely on punishment as a response to transgression. In theory, both components, revenge and modification, are justification for the punishment.

Revenge, as a punishment component, has the unfortunate effect of multiplying itself. Revenge turns to revenge and cycles are set in motion that are almost impossible to eradicate, witness Turkey-Greece, Israel-Arab, Sicily, Hatfield-McCoy, and on. Old scores die hard. The only way to stop revenge is to stop it. There’s no compromise out of it. It simply has to be stopped. Revenge is counterproductive.

With that out of the way, we can concentrate on punishment as behavioral modification, as deterrent, as reprogramming.

But, perhaps, it’s better to begin by asking, not how effective punishment is, but what do we know about behavioral modification and how can it most effectively be achieved? If we were serious about reprogramming criminals, we’d be a lot further along than we are. The most that can be said for our behavioral modification program is that it relies almost exclusively on fear (of further punishment which could well extend into the afterlife, if you believe the believers); but it’s long been known that positive reinforcement is much more effective than negative. Punishment that doesn’t include community building and the integration of the transgressor into society is pointless, useless, and expensive. It does, though, provide for a lot of jobs.

Just offhand, I’d put all cemetery vandals on cemetery maintenance patrol. I’d have a few classes on what cemeteries mean to people, what they do for society. Maybe I’d have the vandals assist with a few funerals. Maybe involve the vandals with putting on a community art show in the cemetery. You get the idea.

Just keep it in mind that nothing solves everything. Be realistic.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Other Spaces

There are places I remember all my life  
Though some have changed  
Some forever, not for better 
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments  

Of lovers and friends I still can recall 
Some are dead and some are living 
In my life I loved them all
Dying doesn't have to be ugly.

House in Highgate Cemetery

Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

Santa Rosa Memorial Park

Sonoma Cemetery

Spring Grove Cemetery

Texas State Cemetery

Monday, December 3, 2012

You Are Not Alone

Really? keeps track of a variety of information which is available to the user. You can’t tease out everything you might want to know, but there’s enough there to whet your whistle. They don’t, for example, tell you from which country everyone has come that have visited your site, but they give you a breakdown of the heavy hitters; and if you troll each week, you can catch many countries with less frequent visitors to your site.

In the past week, for example, I’ve had visitors from—besides the United States—in order of number of visitors: Germany, Canada, Russia, United Kingdom, Thailand, France, South Korea, Mexico, and the Netherlands.

All-time, the rankings are somewhat different. The U.S. still leads in page views with 73.4%, but is followed, way down the list, by, of all countries, Russia with 7.1%. Germany follows with 5.7%; United Kingdom, 4%; Canada, 3.4%; and , surprisingly, Ukraine at 1.6%; France, 1.4%; Netherlands, 1.2%; Australia, 1.2%; and, finally, Slovenia at 1%. Yes! Let’s hear it for Slovenia! Statistically there’s not much difference between Ukraine and Slovenia and the countless other countries not listed, but we’re proud of every one of them.

Although we do wonder, how in the heck did they find us? let’s us know, for example, that 45% of the page views were through Internet Explorer versus 27% for Firefox, but that’s not telling us much.

Regardless, hello to all you Russians, Germans, Ukrainians, French, Dutch, and Slovniks and everyone else.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Basin & Range

Going out on a limb here, my guess is that most of you don’t live in Oregon. Or, perhaps, even the West. If that’s the case, may God be with you. Worse yet, you may not have places nearby that are beyond the back of never. A lot of Oregon is like that, beyond the beyond. These pictures are from the basin & range country where never vies with forever. What few people live here live in the basins. The ranges can be fierce, although the basins aren’t much better.

The names "Paisley" and "Fort Rock" will be familiar to students of the first Americans. Both places have caves associated with them, which have provided some of the most significant findings in American paleoanthropology. Luther Cressman in the 1930s found at Fort Rock what is, probably, the oldest pair of sandals extant in the world. Recent revisiting of the Paisley Caves have produced human coprolites 13,500 years old, old enough to upset many traditional academic apple carts.

Needless-to-say, this is some of my favorite hunting country. There aren’t that many cemeteries out here, but they’re mighty fun finding. I’m known to drive here all day until dark falls and then pull off the road and sleep in the front seat. There’s a lot of sky and a lot of quiet at night.

Parts of the West are overrun with tourists and would-be cowboys. The Oregon outback resists gentrification. This is what you’ll find when you get here.
Summer Lake Cemetery
Juntura Cemeteries
Brown Cemetery
Fort Rock Cemetery
Westside Cemetery
Paisley Cemetery
Fort Harney Cemetery
Brown Cemetery
Chief Schonchin Cemetery
Drewsey Cemetery
Denio Cemetery


Should be in my hot little hands within two weeks.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Silence of the Lambs

It started with my wife, Kay, and me visiting Patience McMaster’s grave in the Lowell, OR cemetery in the early/mid-1970s. There aren’t but four or five graves in the Lowell cemetery; it was a humble beginning. Thirty years later, in 2004, I decided to purchase a camera and a new computer and set off recording the cemeteries of Oregon. Another humble beginning.

Exactly why I wanted to record the cemeteries of Oregon is muddled but was mainly a factor of my liking cemeteries; I find the stories and art compelling. Regardless, why I like cemeteries isn’t germane to this account. The first trick, of course, was to find the cemeteries. I developed my techniques, but was always on the lookout for better sources. At the same time, I began reading whatever I could find on cemeteries; which, it turns out, is a lot smaller library than I was expecting.

Academically, the study of cemeteries is limited to folklore studies, landscape architecture, and geography; but within those categories the amount of work done is minimal. The best work is done by landscape architects who tend to approach cemeteries as would a geographer: fitting the place to its function. Most general writing about cemeteries are local guides to both the cemeteries and the people buried within them. There tends to be confusion, especially amongst amateurs, about what one is studying when one is studying graveyards; and the study of the inhabitants of the cemetery is often conflated with the study of the cemetery, per se. Cemetery symbolism is one area that academics like to concentrate on; and, in this country, the East Coast is obsessed with carving styles and eras, thanks to its abundant old cemetery resources.

A notable exception is Richard Meyer’s Cemeteries and Gravemarkers, a collection of twelve essays, largely in the folklore vein, on a variety of topics by differing authors. It’s a highly entertaining book, arguably the best I’ve run across on the subject of American vernacular cemeteries. Better yet, Richard is an Oregonian and his piece in the book was regionally oriented.

Ah ha!

In the late 70s, I tracked Richard down and sent him an email explaining what I was doing and asking for any tips he might have for locating cemeteries around here; to which he replied that, unfortunately, he was no longer in the cemetery research business and couldn’t provide any assistance. Okay, I could live with that, despite wondering why, if he was no longer in the business, he should have forgotten how he tracked down his cemeteries. I understood that he was no longer interested enough to be bothered with answering the question, even should he have the advice. It was, I thought, unfortunate, but a reality I had to live with.

That was the beginning of my curious relationship with the world of cemeterians. I had little idea what an insular group they are. Perhaps it comes from toiling for years out of the sight of the sun or people. Despite Richard, of course, I managed to find more than enough cemeteries to visit. Then came a gathering of the National Society for Preservation, or some such, here in Portland, perhaps in the early 80s or there abouts, and they were planning on visiting some cemeteries while they were here. Maybe it was still in the 70s. In any event, I hadn’t been to that many cemeteries at the time—sixty or seventy—but I was concerned that the cemeteries that would be chosen to be visited would most likely be the stock cemeteries that everyone knew and talked abut, and that the more interesting and representative cemeteries would probably be missed; so I wrote to the state office in charge of cemeteries and in charge of selecting the cemeteries to visit and asked to be added to the group that was doing the deciding.

Can you say “stonewall”?

I got a reply saying, thanks for my interest, they’d contact me later, etc. Nothing happened and I persisted and eventually got a rebuking reply from the state cemeterian telling me to be patient, they’d get to me.

They didn’t. The conference came and went without any more contact from the state. I eventually sent the lady a note asking if I’d been patient enough, yet, but I never heard back from her. Hmm? (Should you want to know, yes, they did choose the old standards.)

My suspicion, way back then, was that not many people, even the cemetery folk, have visited that many cemeteries. My suspicion was that people had their favorite cemeteries and those are the ones that they visited. I still have that suspicion. I did, of course, run across the Oregon Burial Site Guide, with its wealth of information, and those people had visited a bunch of cemeteries. The OBSG, though, was a locating guide and not a descriptive guide and it was burdened down with large numbers of lost, unavailable, and no longer active sites. Furthermore, it did its locating by section and range numbers, a decidedly difficult and imprecise way of finding things. To be fair, the book was compiled prior to GPS locating; but, then again, so was my database. (On the other hand, I had Google Maps.)

Then came the Oregon Historical Cemetery Society (again, these names are approximate; I can never remember their exact wording and I’m not interested enough to go look them up). They are the non-governmental equivalent of the state office. I’d joined them even though they were (and are) fairly moribund. Their newsletter (which hasn’t come our for years) was sporadic at best. They did, as one can imagine, send out constant requests, when they did publish newsletters, for people to come join their board.

Silly me, I said sure, I’ll join. I went to a couple meetings. That in itself was difficult to set up; there was obviously a reluctance to have me attend. I stressed my database and offered it to their organization and its website. By the time the third board meeting came around that I could attend, they told me that there was no point in attending because there was only regular business to address, nothing special; which I found curious, as from my experience that’s what boards and board members deal with. I understood it as an oblique way of say, “No thanks, we’ll do without you.”

Which they’ve been happy to do without ever since. Now, the fact that they seem to have disappeared can’t have anything to do with their rejection of me, but one has to wonder what their objectives are/were.

Enter the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS). They’re pretty much the only serious gravestone people out there. Quasi-academic, they publish a newsletter and an annual. I eventually joined them, too. It turns out the Richard Meyer, that Richard Meyer, was a longtime editor of the annual and a prominent member of the association. In fact, he stepped in to do some relief work within the association, which surprised me, as he said he was out of the business. Maybe he’d taken a sabbatical when I contacted him. The AGS, too, puts out a regular call for papers, and a while back I suggested a piece on, I believe, cowboy images on tombstones. The editor said it sounded right and I should send it on to her for vetting. Well, time went on again, and I contacted her about what was happening, and there was a vacation and this and that and she’d get back to me and never did. Eventually, I stopped asking. I figure I’d gotten lost in the cracks and wasn’t of enough interest for her to remember or pursue. Cest la vie.

Then the AGS decided to hold it’s annual meeting here in Oregon, highly unusual for this East Coast organization; but Richard’s influence looms large. A call for papers went out. I responded with suggestions, but, in particular, stressed that I’d like to help with setting up tours to appropriate cemeteries. I recounted my past history with the state and said I didn’t want that to be repeated. By this point, my database of Oregon cemeteries had grown to well over 600. It had long since become the definitive website for Oregon cemeteries.

I got a response from a guy named Robert Keeler on behalf of the AGS. He thought my presenting a paper on epitaphs would be a good idea. I wrote back saying I was more concerned abut the tours and would like to discuss that first; I emphasized the time factor and thought that tour decisions should be being made, and that, if someone was already on it, they should get in touch with me; and I further urged that anyone coming to Oregon to visit cemeteries should familiarize themselves with the DeadManTalking Flickr site. It would be foolish not to.

Then I made the mistake of looking up this Robert Keeler. His email address implied he was employed by a local community college, and, indeed, he is. That got me to wondering who he was and what his interest in cemeteries was. I’d never heard of him and he’d never made any effort to contact me. I have no indication that he ever visited DeadManTalking or Bogging a Dead Horse; and I asked him that, straight on, “Who are you and what’s your interest in cemeteries?”

That’s the last I’ve heard from him, despite nudging emails. In further reading his website, I caught what might be part of the problem: he’s on the state commission that’s I’d run into before. He already knew who I was. But, still, I found it amazing that the AGS, which knows who I am and what I’ve done for Oregon cemeteries, would set up a conference in my state without consulting me to begin with. I’m sure this Robert Keeler likes cemeteries, but his school website doesn’t mention any interest in cemeteries other than his position on the cemetery commission. He does no academic work around cemeteries. Nor, does anyone else in the state, to my knowledge. As far as I can tell, since Richard quit, I’m it. If there’s anyone else, they’re very quiet.

I went further in trying to maintain contact with Keeler since he stopped answering my emails. I wrote the AGS proper to see if he was okay, that he wasn’t overcome by illness or other calamity. You may find this strange, but the AGS didn’t respond either. Not a word.

I took my last step. I have a Flickr contact, John Martine, who’s also an AGS member. John is very active in AGS, goes to all the annual meetings, etc., and takes great photos. A while back I sent John a Flickr message explaining the situation and asking him what should I do? John has posted pictures on his Flickr site since I wrote to him, so he’s had a chance to read my note; but, and this is going to doubly surprise you, John hasn’t answered back, either. Hmm?

Offhand, I’m not in favor of conspiracy theories, but I’m beginning to detect a pattern here. And an interconnectedness. I have no fears that anyone from the AGS will read this, considering how they avoid me like the plague, but I’d certainly like to know what goes on among them. It’s a long string from Richard telling me he’s no longer in the business to John ignoring my inquiries. I can tell you right now that the AGS folk are going to come here without talking to me. Whatever I do to give them the heebee-jeebees, it sure works. It’s too bad, I know a lot of good cemeteries; I could show them a good time. Why they don’t want to know, is beyond me. Are they all Republicans?


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Home, Sweet Home

The following photos are copyright of Gary Tepfer and the Mongolian Altai Inventory, University of Oregon Libraries. They are of cemeteries in the Altai region of Mongolia. They were taken in 2007. Mr. Tepfer has no idea I crimped his photos to show you. Shame on me.

I mentioned this earlier, but it doesn't hurt to say it again. Native American bloodlines point to relationship with the folks who currently live there. The common ancestors to both may, of course, have lived elsewhere; but the Altai, for all their barren inhospitality, have been a crucial meeting place between East and West for millennia. This is the true dividing line between Europe and Asia rather than the Urals.

The mountains are north of the Tarim Basin of China where the Takla Makan mummies were found. The mummies have distinctive Indo-European features and were accompanied by plaid cloth similar to that found in Scotland.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hello, All of You

Today (11/19/12) so far, twenty-six people have visited this blog. That’s probably fairly typical. Which, truth to tell, I find pretty astounding, not the least of which because everyone comes and goes so silently. How would one know that anyone’s been here were it not for the counters? Beats me.

In any event, hello to all of you, you dear folk.
Update of the book of epitaphs from the Oregon Territory, which I mentioned earlier: it’s in proof stages now and should be ready in a month’s time, and it’s name has changed to Hey Darlin’; Epitaphs of the Oregon Territory. It will be available nationally, so you can push your local bookstore to carry it.

Testimony to its power: my wife, who was proofing it, came out of her room in tears. She had to stop proofing for awhile; it was too sad.

Now, not all of the epitaphs are sad, but they’re all good and some are downright sublime. It makes one wonder why they haven’t been collected before. One of my flippant answers to the question, “Why cemeteries?” is that I go for the stories and the pictures. The stories are really these little departure-poems, voices from an ever receding past.

“Hello. I hear you.”

Altai Mountains

These photos are blatantly stolen from Google Maps. I don't know who took them; my thanks to whomever. They weren't labeled, but the sure looked like a cemetery to me.

The Altai Mountains lie at the juncture of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Russia. Rather than the Urals, the Altai mark the divide between Asia and Europe. It was here that the two cultures met; this is as far east as the Indo-Europeans went and here they mingled with Asians coming out of China.

Perhaps more importantly for the Americas, Native-American bloodlines point back to the Altai, as well. This cemetery dates from well post-emigration for those who left for America, but, symbolically, it's the world's cemetery, sans Africa.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Love Me Do

It was not always thus.

We all know how the past is a foreign country with strange garb and customs. We hardly know our grandparents for their antiquity. We accept change as a constant.

Yet time itself changes through time. The apparent length of a day or a life or a millennium has bent and twisted through the ages to mean different and, perhaps, contradictory things to different peoples. For millions of years, time couldn’t have been more than an awareness of days and seasons, of aging and death. Time existed as a cycle, not a direction. Change itself was cyclical. Yesterday would return as surely as tomorrow would fade.

It was the Dream Time. It was when we shared the Earth with the other animals instead of riding dominion over them. The world had not yet been given to us.

At some point in time, change began happening fast enough to notice. At some point, innovation happened fast enough that one person could recognize its arrival: “Hey, when did you start wearing that style of moccasin?” By the time written history arrives, we can track changes in culture and plot a direction. Time becomes less circular and more helical.

In the graveyards of Oregon, we have a touch over 150 years of time etched into stone. We can wander the rows and see the styles change before our very eyes. If we look at them all, we can see the arc of our culture has diversified and draws its messages for the future from a much deeper well now than in the past.

Epitaphs are necessarily parsed through the context of their era. Who merits a headstone, much less an epitaph, is not evenly distributed through society at any time. Cost limits availability, style, and size of monuments. The handmade, wooden headboard will be swallowed up by the elements long before granite or marble will. Different elements of the culture, differing ethnic and religious groups, different eras, have different ways of approaching memorialization; what is custom to one, might be unheard of to another. How interpersonal relations are handled on tombstones offers us a window onto previous times; we can see the trend towards informality (not to mention secularism) writ bold on the rock faces.
The early tombstones of the Oregon Territory reflect both a more homogeneous populace than today and one that took its inspiration from a narrower range of options. Early (1840s-1910s) epitaphs have a much greater tendency towards standardization, set in formal dialogues reflecting as much the choices of the broader community as those of the interred.

It’s not just that people of earlier times were less inclined to write their own epitaphs rather than borrow them from already written sources than people of today, but rather that they chose their selections from a restricted field and one that probably didn’t reflect their own personal experience so much as the dictates of chapbook collections of sentiments written anonymously for such a purpose. Such chapbooks still exist and are still in use, though the contents have changed. Most funerals homes have them, and they’re readily available on the Net. In such instances, it’s the community which fashions the epitaph versus the individual.

It’s doubtful, for example, that William Miracle’s wife, who I presume arranged for his epitaph in 1905, ever thought, much less wrote:

Oh Love I am so sad and lonely
Here without you upon the earth
That the fairest spot in its realm
Are to me but desert dearth.

“Desert dearth”? Even in 1905 no one said “realm,” but “desert dearth”? Please.

Written for the distaff side, it doesn’t get much better. An 1887 epitaph for G. W. Prosser is slightly less ornate:

My wife, how fondly shall thy memory
Be enshrined within the chambers of my heart;
Thy virtuous worth was only known to me,
And I can feel how sad it is to part.

I’m sure Mr. Prosser loved Mrs. Prosser, but I’m not so sure how often he said, “My dear, you are enshrined within the chambers of my heart.” Maybe he did.

Nor do I think that many people were inclined to say “doth,’ even back then.

Although he sleeps his memory doth live
And cheering comfort to his mourners give.

The stilted nature of those epitaphs, though, was not universal. Ira Goodell’s epitaph from 1894 is shockingly modern.

“…how we would make the kisses fly.”
That leaves one with an entirely different impression of their relationship than does “thy virtuous worth.” I’m not saying the Goodells had more fun than the Prossers, but they might have been more fun to party with.

The early period of epitaphs in the Territory was followed by a period of sterility where epitaphs almost disappeared. Cost was undoubtedly a factor, but equally important was a cultural shift away from recognizing death. The lawn cemetery became de rigueur and the customs of memorial day began to wither; there was no longer a grave to maintain. Gravestones were lost in a sea of uniformity. There was little room for sentiment on small, plain, stone tablets level with the ground.

The modern era, which begins slowly in the 1970s, dumps the conventions of old and strikes out in innumerable directions reflecting a new polyphony of beliefs and eschatologies.

Returning to the theme of romantic epitaphs: the category didn’t exist substantially until the turn of the twenty-first century when they blossomed in a fine mist. Inevitably, wrenched from the dependence on preordained scripture, the new epitaphs vary greatly in sophistication and sensibility. Many, if heartfelt, are mundane. Some, though, transcend the ordinary and reach into the poetic. Often, of course, the velvet words are chosen from an extant work and as often it’s hard to discern the authorship of many epitaphs; but a conscientious collector can find genuine gems hidden in the marble bosque.
They, too, fall into recognizable categories, many of which emphasize the permanence of their life together and how it transcends time and corporality. Eddie Hogan (b. 1939) declares that view in its simplest terms. Speaking to his wife, Debbie (1954-1994), he declares:

My wife til the end of time.

The Woods, Sharon (1948-2005) and Wesley (b. 1946), elaborate on those words:

I am with you always
To the very end of the age

Whereas The Heffners, David and Barbara (1952-2002), frame the same feeling in a metaphor:

Our highway
Will never end.

That sense of bonding drifts through many epitaphs. Esther Knight (1991-2008), while only seventeen, emphatically declares:

We were in this together

But the Pearson’s of Roseburg, Glen (1931-2006) and Geraldine (1933-1994), put a light-hearted and endearing spin on it by simply saying:

wild & crazy kids

Which says oodles about who they were and on what their marriage was based.
A pair of anonymous bridge players—A.C.B.L. Life Masters—in the Lower Boise Cemetery had an equally endearing take on what trumped their relationship:

He led diamonds
She returned hearts

Sometimes it’s recognized that the road to eternity is only interrupted. It’s not sure if it’s Darlene Urban talking in 2007 or if it’s someone talking to Darlene, but her epitaph reads:

I’ll find my way back to you by heart.

On the other hand, there’s a good chance it was a wife who wrote to Richard Banker in 1995:

He arrived with the snow
He left with the wind
we’ll be together again

Often as not, the author is merely trying to say “I loved you” in a meaningful manner, one that resonated between them. I have to think it was Eugene (1909-2001) Petucho speaking to his wife Anne (1908-2002) when it was written on their tombstone:

Eyes so dark and dear

Maybe it was the other way around.

Who is speaking on the Sauerwein’s tombstone, Shirley or James who died in 2005?

I love you to your toes

Likewise, is Lillian (1915-2005) Engel speaking from the grave or is someone speaking to her when her marker says:

Hey Darlin’
And who walked with whom as recorded on Erten Brock’s 2005 stone?

I walked with you once upon a dream

On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious to whom Nathan Hand was speaking when he wrote on his monument:

Searching for Linda
on the Oregon Trail

We don’t know if he ever found her. We hope so.

The pressing question is what will happen to epitaphs in the future? Will they disappear along with cemeteries? Will the dead of the future be relegated to mantlepieces then attics and then left behind in the chaos of a long-distance move? Or will they be scattered in streams, on beaches, off mountain tops, or buried in gardens? How will people say they love each other when there is only the wind left and the faint humming of computers? Will anyone care that there once was poetry?