Of Many Things

Visiting Cemeteries might seem an odd way to spend a vacation. As an obsessive, lifelong English major, however, I have an interest in the final resting places of those who made notable contributions to literature. During a week’s respite in the Boston area, I accordingly spent several hours at two cemeteries that hold the remains of a number of important writers of both the 19th and the 20th centuries.

One visit was to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in nearby Concord. Walking from the train station through the town, I eventually saw a sign that directed me to "Authors’ Ridge" at the far end of the cemetery. And there they were, almost next to one another: the graves of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They lay at rest not singly, but as they had been in life: members of families—parents, brothers and sisters, wives, children. All have their markers.

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Other visitors also climbed up the ridge to pay their respects, and earlier ones had sometimes left tokens of their own brief presence. Three pencils lay beside Thoreau’s grave marker, and a piece of paper. The paper, damp from the previous day’s rain, turned out to be a message to him. It read: "I think you’d be displeased with the way the world is today." How true. Thoreau loved simplicity, and today’s complex and consumer-oriented world would not be to his taste, nor the ongoing efforts of some leaders to stifle personal freedom.

A few steps farther on were the Alcott graves. By Louisa’s was a small bronze star with the words "Civil War Veteran." Although most think of her only as the author of Little Women, during the Civil War she traveled to Washington, D.C., to nurse wounded soldiers in an army hospital, and thus earned her veteran’s status. She wrote movingly of this experience in Hospital Sketches.

Far different was the Forest Hills Cemetery on the outskirts of Boston—a vast tract of almost 300 acres. In contrast to the earlier (1823) Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, with its hilly and unadorned terrain, Forest Hills was begun a quarter of a century later as a so-called garden cemetery. Besides being a place of interment, its extensive grounds were meant to compensate for the lack of public parks at the time. Picnickers could come with their baskets and enjoy the lawns, trees and a sizeable lake. On the day of my visit, in fact, a small group was enjoying a picnic under the shade of a huge purple beech tree.

With a map provided by the cemetery office, I found the grave of E. E. Cummings. Farther on, near a grove of pine trees that scented the air, was the grave site of the playwright Eugene O’Neill and his wife, Carlotta. She outlived him by 17 years, and after his death arranged for laurel bushes to be planted behind the large but simple marker. On top, as a simple token of homage, a visitor had left a handful of pebbles.

Much more difficult to locate was the grave of the Pulitzer prize-winning contemporary poet, Anne Sexton, at the other end of the cemetery. It was only with the help of an elderly groundsman ("Been here 40 years, my brother 25"), that I came across it as he patiently drove me about in his green truck. She too lay with family members, to one side of a family monument with the single name Sexton on the front. Again, pebbles lay atop the flat surface as a remembrance.

Long subject to severe depression, Anne Sexton ended her life in 1974, when she was only in her mid-40’s. Other writers whose graves I visited lived much longer lives, but eventually they all came to rest either in this garden cemetery or in the starker and earlier surroundings of Sleepy Hollow. But long lives or short, they left their imprint on the spirit of those who continue to read their works today, and who are occasionally moved to leave small reminders of their visits—pebbles or pencils or notes streaked by rain.

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