Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Secrets of the graveyard

I wrote a short piece here about two cemeteries in Austin. Meditating in cemeteries is an ancient Buddhist practice, which is not why I visit graveyards, but, as a Buddhist, the existence of Buddhist scriptures 2000 years old recommending it enables me to claim some spiritual reason for my habit of walking in cemeteries--provided I am willing to break the 4th Precept, which forbids lying. In other words, it really isn't the reason.

But it sounds like a good thing to do, going to the graveyard and meditating on life's transience. I have on a few occasions undertaken to do just that, but have been driven out by mosquitoes or leaf-blower noise or widow ladies scowling at me as they brought flowers for Fritz's grave near where I was sitting. So it doesn't work. But I like the idea, even if it doesn't pan out for me personally.

What I like about graveyards is the lives you just have glimpses of, or can imagine, maybe from a hint on the tombstone inscription. Not to mention the lives of the living, the widow lady with the flowers, and the man who waters the grass on his wife's grave, or the old man who runs the cemetery association that owns Live Oak cemetery where my wife is buried, who unfailing complains to me, when I run into him every few months, that my wife's grave is too cluttered and disordered.

Plus I like the esthetics, usually austere but sometimes, as in Mexican graveyards, the opposite of austere, and I like the landscaping, or the lack of it, and the astonishing cultural specificity and conservatism--up until recently, anyway, of funerary customs and art. For one example, that I saw yesterday, the Texas-German tombstones decorated with pre-Christian hex symbols, that the stonecarvers probably had no idea of the origin of.

Yesterday I walked in the old Oakwood Cemetery in downtown Austin, which was the big municipal graveyard for a hundred and fifty years (full up, now), and the prestige place to be buried. Lots of obelisks and marble mausoleums. I tend to ignore those.

I also found this--I haven't had time to try to find the story that goes with it. If past experience is a guide, I won't be able to. I was looking at the old Beth Israel portion of the graveyard, and noticed the stone below:

Elias Olenick's tombstone

Elias Olenick, native of Poland, age 38 years 8 months, murdered at Austin December 13, 1877. May his soul rest in peace.

This is very unusual--not to get murdered, in Texas--but for a tombstone to give the cause of death. For the most part, Jewish graves in Texas are undistinguishable from Anglo protestant ones, except, sometimes, for the lettering. The overall look, from a distance, is the same. Jews, at least Texas Jews, seem to have taken pains, in death, to fit in with their neighbors, unlike every other cultural group, which tried to preserve its differences, and unlike the dominant cultural group, white protestants, who, to everyone's great misfortune then and now, didn't give a rat's ass about their neighbors.

But I digress. A quick search on the web, not the best place for this sort of thing, turns up only that he was a shopkeeper, who was murdered in his dry goods store. No details. I'll put it on my list of things to look up next time I go the the downtown public library, where there is a cardfile index and microfilm archive of the Austin newspaper for the 1800s. Still not something you can look up on a computer.

I would not bet on being able to find out the story. Old Texas newspapers were laconic about this sort of thing, except in cases where a minority member, unstead of being the victim, was the accused.

I am guessing--in the total absence of information--that Elias was either murdered because he was Jewish, or that his murderer was set free because his victim was Jewish, and that the inscription, which as I said is highly unusual, was a small but more or less permanent protest. I'll let you know if I find out anything one way or the other.

At the far end of the cemetery from the old Jewish section is Baylor Baynham Palmer's grave--I stopped by it to see if I could get a photo, but the light was bad and the inscription, obscured by lichen, was not legible. But the tombstone says, on one side:
Baylor Baynham Palmer
Born [illegible] Virginia, died 1885
Captain of Artillery under General Lee
This cross [ with x inscribed in stone] was on his forehead,
this star [inscribed star] stood over him
He tried to be his brother's keeper and failed
and hid himself under the name of
The Lone Palm Tree

At the top of the stone, are two crossed palm fronds. On the other side, at the top of the stone, the name on the stone is "Lone Palm Tree."

I did search the local paper archives for the Lone Palm Tree, and found his death notice, but it said only that he was a beekeeper. I am guessing post traumatic stress syndrome, and suicide, but, who knows? The secret of the inscription could be anything. And--too bad for nosy people like me--the secret is probably lost forever.

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