Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Chimes in the graveyard

It was too windy to go bird-watching today, so instead I went to visit my wife's grave. The impulse to visit the grave sites of the dead must be very ancient, probably as ancient as our species. It is quite irrational, and, as an aficionado of the irrational (properly compartmentalized and with other standard disclaimers applying) I find such irrationality restorative.
Kay wanted to be buried in Live Oak cemetery, a country graveyard not too far from our house. The old part of the graveyard is typical of late 19th early 20th century southern Anglo-American burial grounds. Lots of big live oaks, tall arborvitaes. Most of the older tombstones are of native limestone and eroding badly enough they are hard to read, and the newer ones are of granite.
The new part of the graveyard does not allow upright stones. In this it is typical of a majority of graveyards in Austin nowadays. Terry Jordan, in his excellent book, Texas Graveyards, discusses the traditional funerary customs of our various racial, ethnic, and religious groups in some detail, up basically to the advent of this type of flat cemetery--flat, of course, to facilitate mowing. As far as I know, no cultural historian has looked closely at this type of burial ground.
So I will give you a quick tour. Many of them have the name, or the promise, of "perpetual care" which seems an extravagant lie, when you think about that. Live Oak Cemetery, which is run lackadaisically by a cemetery association, seems only to promise perpetual neglect, punctuated by sporadic episodes of mowing. The mowing of the flat part if anything must be harder than the mowing of the traditional area, because of the astonishing amounts of memorabilia and personal tokens of affection for the deceased left on the graves, and which, by custom, and possibly law, are left in place, subject to the ravages only of the weather and inevitable episodes of theft and vandalism.
First impression, today: cacophony.
For some reason the new part of the cemetery is full of wind chimes--hundreds of them, jangling, several to a tree sometimes, each with its own chord, no chord in tune with any other. Windy days can make this distressing. Almost every grave has an American flag on it, something that happened after 9/11 and has not gone away, although many of the flags are tattered and faded. The flags rattle in the strong wind. We see a more determined funerary patriotism in ingenious sheet metal flag cutouts, with the stripes painted red and the empty space between the red stripes representing white. I counted exactly 50 holes in the blue rectangle on the one I looked at closely. I knew there would be 50 holes before I started counting.
Visually, it's kind of exuberant. Countless tufts of artificial flowers, At least one bunch per grave, plus junk of all kinds here and there, carefully and lovingly placed. It this respect these new graveyards are more like a traditional Mexican cemetery than like a traditional Anglo one.
Of course southern graveyards, new or old, have never had the austere quality of New England ones--no skull and crossbones with grim warnings like "Take heed traveler, as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so you shall be, prepare for Death and follow me" that you can still see on old gray slate stones in Boston. We southerners have always preferred the mawkish to the stark in our treatment of death in general.
The new model graveyards amplify this. Kitsch reclining angels and bad cherubs are quite abundant, but we also see some inventive folk art--as I walk around I see, for example, a replica of Mexican church a foot high, with a lot of detail, detail, very colorful, red, blue, and green, on the grave of a woman who has a black and white photo under glass on her headstone. No reason that we can know for the church replica. She is clearly, by name and appearance, Anglo. Maybe some cultural fusion going on, a fine thing IMO. Nearby is a wire hanging basket holder with a wicker basket. The basket contains notes presumably addressed to the departed, pulped by weather, plus a cigarette pack--not crumpled, but placed there deliberately. Plus a rosary.
I could go on at far to great length discussing the stuff on the graves. The overall effect is--touching, even when grotesque. A cowboy, engraved in granite, on horse, with a rope around neck of an engraved, struggling cow.

Ah. Here we have "Blaze Foley, poet-songwriter-musician 1949 1989" in white letters on a black granite headstone. Mr. Foley is now Kay's neighbor. Foley was a local musician, and his headstone has the outline of a guitar with the names of his songs inside the guitar, plus an etched likeness of Foley himself, long bearded, grizzled, a cowboy hat. Here we find a more individualized verse than average for a southern epitaph, probably one of his songs:
I like to drink beer, hang out in the bars
I don't like buses, I don't like cars
Don't like presidents Don't like stars
Never had stitches but I do got scars
I love to go to parties, I love my friends
I got no books but I got book ends
Think I'm crazy but that depends
I don't seem that crazy to me.

Mr. Foley's headstone:
Foley headstone

And Kay's grave
Kay's grave

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