I recollect, as a child, encountering an article in Reader’s Digest (if I remember right) whose title read something to the effect of ‘I am no stranger to graveyards’. In it, the author spoke of his deep affiliation with these places of final rest where the inscriptions by way of epitaphs, commingled with the peace of place left him profoundly and consistently moved. At the time, I was wont to visit my grandmother’s house in Kottayam, a township in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where one graveyard was but paces away from the main gate and another, far grander, could be glimpsed from a bedroom’s window. Graves scared me. They represented something irrevocable – the relentless path beginning from the supine figure whose forehead was cold to a final kiss before being lost to view in the nail-down of hexagonal board and then the clods of earth in advance of the shovel. In time there would be a marker – piles of pebble, a concrete slab, a headstone. Perhaps a picture embossed. But at that moment of parting, these were the elements accruing for those that had gone before, the monuments around, the silences marking the particularity that is grief.
Then I read the article. It changed my entire outlook.
At a shade shy of nineteen, I wrote a poem called ‘On Loss’. In it, I describe a young boy who, left to his own lonely deserts (in this case, certainly not just) falls in love with a girl he has never met, who lies out of sight in her second year of decease. She would have been his age, a fact that seizes him powerfully when he encounters her epitaph in a cemetery adjoining the church where he has just attended a service. A large urban project condemns the cemetery to oblivion, a housing project to take its place and the boy, bereft, watches helplessly as the transformation occurs. Six years later, I would win an international BBC radio-play prize for my effort, ‘Grave Affairs’ (also known as ‘A Sunset in Purple’), set in adjoining cemeteries in north-central Kerala, one Muslim, the other Christian, separated by a broken wall and both looked after by a Hindu caretaker/undertaker, with furore erupting when a long concealed Christian grave is discovered on the Muslim side, before Solomonic sagacity prevails. I did not, however, frequent cemeteries even at this time, just the odd occasional walk of wistfulness marking in the main people I did not know. My move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1998, made an inordinate difference. For it contains the oldest garden cemetery established in the United States (1831), Mount Auburn.
Consecration Dell, the oldest spot in Mount Auburn Cemetery (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA)
Mount Auburn is simply one of my favourite places in the world. Set in 174 acres of gently rolling, undulating hill-land, it is the repository of a myriad tombs redounding to some of the most extraordinary people from this country across all manners of walk during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the present one as well. Verse-smiths like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Julia Ward Howe (who penned ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’), theological figures such as Phillips Brooks (writer of the Christmas carol ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’), Hosea Ballou (one of the fathers of American Universalism) and Mary Baker Eddy (founder of the Christian Science movement), ex-slaves like Harriet Jacobs whose narrative would shock the conscience of a nation and abolitionists such as Charles Sumner, whose vitriolic tirade against the excesses of the Confederacy towards its black ‘property’ would see him beaten senseless in his Senate Chamber by an incensed South Carolinian Congressman, Preston Brooks, and of course the many academic practitioners whose connections with the making of the intellectual powerhouse that is Cambridge and greater Boston more generally are legion – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., (author of ‘The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table’), Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner (the legendary behavioural psychologist at Harvard), William Barton Rogers (founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT), Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz and Asa Gray (among the most celebrated natural historians of their time, who fell on either side of the bitter debate riving the mid nineteenth century over Darwinism – Agassiz against, Gray for) and Helen Brooke Taussig (who pioneered treatment for the blue-baby syndrome) represent but a few. My many returns to Mount Auburn found me growing increasingly familiar with the stories of those interred therein, and as I began to give my own informal tours of the cemetery, I learnt more and more of the fabric of the social history of a city that Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. once called ‘The Hub of the Solar System’.
Halcyon Lake with the monument and tomb of Mary Baker Eddy across it, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
The insight was massive – I found myself doing likewise during academic stints in India (especially Calcutta, the focal point of much of my doctoral research), France (Paris and Aix-en-Provence) and the United Kingdom (London) – in the last named, I actually became a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery (where Karl Marx, George Eliot and Michael Faraday are buried) in order to get access to the graves of some of the British natural historians once associated with India (the subject of my Ph.D. in the History of Science at Harvard), and in so doing, was exposed to another astounding array of personalities whose stories continue to inspire me to this day.
The somewhat worse-for-wear grave of the first professional Curator of the Museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and important correspondent of Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth at Highgate Cemetery, London, UK
At the INK conference in Jaipur last December, I made the case that by specialising early in a field and thereby leaving behind those areas that were once of profound interest to us as a consequence of such narrowing of vision, we run the risk of betraying our childhood. Attendant upon that proposition was my belief that in those early years of general learning (i.e. school, elementary to high) before such necessitation of choice was foisted upon us, the role of the local was of incalculable value in instilling and fostering wonder. In my estimation, cemeteries do just this. Alongside the sights and sounds of any particular place, some more celebrated than others, there is history to be met in the cemetery, be it an old and austere burial ground with skulls and crossbones marking the faith-structures of an era, or restful gardens with angels in marble be they triumphant or mourning, with their trumpets and their wreaths, that speak of a more personal connection. In the changing face of the resting spot, differences can extend to ecology – the local flavour of a green-tinged graveyard in the hill-station of Coonoor in the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu to which a couple of us at INK repaired shortly after the conference saw us suddenly sharing real estate with about five gaur or Indian wild oxen (Bos gaurus) that had sauntered in after our arrival – needless to say, after a few adventurous photographs we beat a somewhat hasty retreat. The larger point here is that there is history to be learnt through the forms of memorialisation that we choose, we the living through the dead for whom we care, and the caring can be borrowed by those who did not know the dead, and the field trip is directed to the cemetery. The poem, ‘On Loss’ that I wrote years ago, refers to a relatively rare occurrence – in general, the grave outlives the occupant. The story lies in the stone. And wherever it is that we may be, we are called to remember. And to learn.
A potentially irate gaur in the Tiger Hill Cemetary, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India
By John Mathew, Academician, Author and INK2011 Speaker
May 4, 2012
To read John Mathew’s bio, click here.