The Thinking 

A Cemetery Becomes a Living Community

March 18, 2017

ALAN writes:

One day more than ten years ago I was walking through an old Catholic cemetery in St. Louis.  I was in a frame of mind to do that because I knew that that cemetery is the final resting place for twenty-five people in my family and extended family.  I was taken there when my grandmother died in 1957, but I have no concrete memories from that day.

At its entrance is a two-story chapel mausoleum.  I walked into the building and read some of the names on the wall.  In one corner there was a name just above eye level.  It read “Stephanie Crane” and there was a small photograph of an attractive young woman with dark hair.  But what caught my attention were the years of her life: 1949-2002.  It struck me instantly:  She and I were contemporaries.  We were the same age.  She had been five weeks younger.  Yet there was her name in plain sight on that wall—and here was I, still walking around.  She died at age 52.  That moment had the effect of “concentrating the mind,” although my mind had already been concentrated by the loss of my parents in successive years.  What it meant to me was:  It is later than you think.

For those reasons and although I never knew her or met her, the name Stephanie Crane imprinted itself in my memory.  I would never forget that little photograph alongside her name on that wall.

Within the past year, I was browsing through bound volumes of a monthly magazine published in the 1950s-‘60s for high school students in St. Louis.  Prom magazine could be found in those years at every news and magazine stand in town.  A single issue cost a dime.  One dollar would purchase a year’s subscription.  It featured countless photographs of high school dances, plays, dinners, and sporting events.  But it had not surrendered fully to the youth subculture.  To his credit, the publisher often admonished readers about the importance of civic virtue, patriotism, and religion.

It was entirely by chance that I happened to see the name “Stephanie Crane” along with her photograph in two issues of that magazine from 1968.  The photographs were proof that it was the same woman whose name I had seen on the wall in that cemetery.  I learned that Miss Crane had been named “Miss Teenage St. Louis” and then became “Miss Teenage America”.  She was pictured in an advertisement for Dr. Pepper in March and then in August with veteran entertainer Jimmy Durante from what I imagine was the nationally televised Miss Teenage America pageant.  In 1968, I had no awareness of such things.

It is a large cemetery.  Other gravesites I visit are those of both sets of grandparents, five aunts, four uncles, five great-aunts or uncles, one cousin, the parents of two grade school classmates, five friends, the man who owned a small corner market where we shopped in 1958-’62, and a newspaper reporter who grew up in south St. Louis and wrote about a time when cows grazed in fields behind a Catholic high school and horses could be rented for horseback rides on the greenway beside a river.

Memory is a strange thing:  I have no specific memory of being at my grandmother’s funeral, but I can remember a day not long after that when Michael (one of those classmates) and I spent the afternoon playing at his house and his mother served pork chops and creamed corn at supper.  Isn’t that ridiculous?

One day I was walking through the cemetery—slowly, as always—when the name on a gravestone impelled me to stop.  It was the gravesite of the man who had been our family doctor in the years of my boyhood.  Of course I remembered him from the 1950s, when he made house-calls and guided me through the usual childhood ailments.  I remembered his deep voice.  I remembered sitting with my mother in the waiting room outside his office, in a hallway at the top of a wooden staircase.  I remembered his nurse “Connie”, who was quietly efficient and always dressed in her white nurse’s uniform and white shoes and hat.  I remembered how, at the end of each office visit, he would write a “prescription” for chocolate ice cream, hand it to my mother, and tell us we could have it filled in the drug store downstairs.

One day in 2004, the name on a monument stopped me in my tracks.  Half a century earlier, there was a man who worked as an announcer on a St. Louis TV station’s daily variety program and a children’s program.  He had a cheerful manner and his voice was unmistakable.  He could read the news or describe a professional wrestling match or take part in a comedy sketch equally well.  His name was George Abel.  When he died in 1983, I clipped and saved his newspaper obituary.  Now here I was, standing at the gravesite for him and his wife, having found it by chance but never having imagined such a moment. His wife had been a dancer at the St. Louis Municipal Opera.

Last December, I walked by that monument again and paused to read it again.  But I saw that a new monument had replaced the original.  And now even their son’s years of birth and death had been added to theirs.  He was four years younger than me when he died.

There was a morning after a sleet storm in December 1956 when my mother stepped outside for a moment to take four color slides of ice clinging to trees and overhead wires and streets and lampposts.  Exactly fifty years later, one morning after a sleet storm in December 2006, I walked through that cemetery and took a series of color pictures of snow-covered hills and ice-covered trees silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky.

I do not walk in a cemetery for the sake of walking.  I would never do that.  I walk to visit gravesites and remember and read names and inscriptions.  That cemeteries are increasingly used by joggers and bicyclists and dog-walkers is appalling and indefensible to me.  (As are balloons and toys left at gravesites; as are the fun-things-to-do-in-cemeteries listed in “The Scourge of Fun”, June 7, 2016.)

One day I walked through the cemetery in late afternoon after it had rained.  It was a rare moment indeed when I glanced in the distance and realized I could see virtually the entire half-arc of a rainbow from one horizon to another.

I stand at the monument marking the gravesite of my railroad uncle and aunt, who embodied the best that human beings can be.  And the memories of them come without bid:  Of how they welcomed us to their home in the old railroad town of Denison, Texas, in 1958-’59;  of riding with my aunt to and from the Piggly-Wiggly market, along tree-shaded roads and railroad tracks in the cotton mill district of Denison;  of how she introduced me to cinnamon toast at her breakfast table;

….of playing bingo with them at the local VFW hall and American Legion post;  of the knickknacks in their home: kewpie dolls, a waterfall scene on a revolving lampshade, and multiple sets of salt and pepper shakers, one pair in the form of Catholic nuns in their traditional black habits;  of the sound of trains passing in the night on tracks within sight from their front lawn;  of hearing them talk about passenger trains with romantic-sounding names like the Blue Bird, the Bluebonnet, and the Banner Blue;

….of how my aunt had her washing machine in her kitchen (because their home had no basement) and hung the clothes out to dry in their back yard;  of how she permitted me (at age nine) to use her manual typewriter to type a brief message on postcards;  of how we played croquet in their back yard with a little blond-haired neighbor girl named Andrea who struggled with her croquet mallet (it was bigger than she was);

…. of how she took us to see the house in Denison where Dwight Eisenhower (who was then President) had been born;  of how she drove us along a road between Denison and Sherman to a place called The Cowboy Shop, where we browsed among western-style clothing and bolo-ties and western-themed souvenirs and the wonderful, unforgettable scent of leather goods;  of how the daughter of my uncle’s co-worker and I sat on the swing on the porch of their frame house across from the city park in the serene quiet of a small-town Texas night while the grown-ups talked inside;

….of balmy summer evenings when we got dressed up and dined out at Lake Texoma Lodge on a high point of land overlooking a long bridge over the lake where men sat on both sides with their fishing poles;   and of how my uncle would sit next to me in their living room after supper and stroke my back as the grown-ups talked of their plans for tomorrow and as I gazed at the darkness and mystery of a Texas night that loomed just beyond the screen door.

All of that added up to only a few weeks out of our lives, but it was sheer heaven to that little boy.

Gratitude and the acute awareness of debts unpaid and obligations undischarged are some of the things that come to mind during a walk in the cemetery.  And that awareness is all the more painful because I know the Accounts Payable department is closed permanently.

To paraphrase a line spoken by Monty Woolley in “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947):  Whenever I walk through a cemetery, I have the feeling I’m apartment-hunting and that the sooner I find one, the better.

— Comments —

Laura writes:

Thank you for your lovely essay.

But I hope you don’t mind if I scold you. Of course, the “Accounts Payable department” is not closed! You can pray for them.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. –-2 Machabees 12:46

You can pray also that they never forget you and intercede on your behalf.

Stephen Ippolito writes:

Thank you, Alan, for such a beautiful reminiscence.

You’ve given us so much that’s worthwhile to ponder there.

I am also grateful for your nod to one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, “The Bishop’s Wife.” What a shame it is not better known. There is so much wisdom – and so many gestures of kindness – sprinkled lightly through the movie.

My favorite touch is how Cary Grant, as Dudley the angel, secretly casts a spell of sorts on the Professor’s last sherry bottle, ensuring that it constantly replenishes itself.

The Professor is discreetly depicted as rather down on his luck and although not an alcoholic does rather seem to take comfort in his sherry: ” an inferior grade, but potable”.

I love that the Professor, having so hospitably shared his precious sherry with his guests, has the gesture returned in spades by Dudley. A nod, almost certainly, to Christ’s generosity at the wedding feast at Cana.

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