Just a Thought . . .

Written by Arthur Railton, from the Vineyard Gazette of May 25, 1990:

Every town has one. Some have two, three or more. They are our most ignored public spaces. Except during a few days in May. They are our cemeteries. Quiet and restful, even in frenetic mid-summer they are sanctuaries. Not for birds, not for wildlife, but for humans, living and dead. Yet, except on Memorial Day, they are ignored.

On that day we make our annual pilgrimage. After dropping off a geranium or a few plastic flowers, we leave and for another year push cemeteries to the back of our minds. Who wants to think about cemeteries? The time will come soon enough.

But the crews who take care of those acres of lawn studded with granite and marble and slate don’t forget. They work every day, keeping those final resting places trimmed, discarding our faded geraniums and plastic flowers while we drive by with scarcely a glance. Cemetery workers are our most unappreciated town employees. Cemeteries must look perfect on Memorial Day regardless of the weather or budgets. If there is a blade of grass untrimmed, we complain. It can rain every day, but the grass must be mowed by Memorial Day. On every grave.

So this Memorial Day remember those custodians of our memories. And during the rest of the year take an occasional walk through your cemetery. Read the markers, you’ll learn a lot about history. It’ll pay you to get to know the place; sooner or later, you’ll be spending a lot of time there.

Cemeteries tell us much about family pride, about the human ego, about humility and pomposity.

The oldest stones are often enigmatic, with gracefully carved cherubs and ghoulish skulls. Symbols in slate of heaven and hell. None seems aimed at impressing the living, only to mark a departure for a better world. Later, especially in the prosperous 1800s, families began using grave markers to make statements. Pretentious marble or granite markers in raised plots that send a clear message: Here lies an important person.

The largest plot in Edgartown’s Westside cemetery contains a giant granite monument, its upper half supported by four columns. A marker suitable for a king or a president. It gives only the last name: Fisher. On a step leading up to it, there’s one other clue: Dr. Fisher. Nothing more. No dates, no first name, no wife’s name. Details are unnecessary. When Dr. Daniel Fisher, the Island’s richest man, was buried in 1876 there was no need to recite his history. The size of the plot and the bulk of the monument told it all.

Some stones, like that of Joseph Dunham, who died in 1796, provide a sculptured highlight of Island history: “During the seven years of the Revolutionary War with our Mother Country, he was employed in conveying corn from the west to feed the starving people of this place and our sister island and was so fortunate as to escape the enemy unmolested.”

On an Edgartown stone. A loving family commemorates young Capt. Archibald Mellen Jr., only 27 years old, who was murdered in the South Pacific. It even names the murderer, Cyrus W. Plummer. The mutineers took over his ship in 1857 and headed for the gold fields of Australia.

A polished granite obelisk memorializes another Edgartown Fisher family: that of Capt. Charles W. Fisher. It records, along with others, the death in New Zealand of son Charles, who was still very much alive at the time. He had shamed his Edgartown family by taking part in a huge financial swindle. When the bubble burst, he packed a suitcase full of money and shipped away to New Zealand where he lived a long and useful life. But to his Edgartown family he was dead and they engraved the stone with a fictitious date and cause of death (consumption) to prove it.

A handsome marble marker in the oldest part of the cemetery extols a dear departed citizen, well known to all. It marks the grave of Ichabod Norton, the Island’s richest man at the time. He was a man who carefully planned everything, even writing his own epitaph. He had it carved in marble and the stone set on his grave plot years before he died so he’d be sure to be remembered the way he wanted. He wasn’t about to trust somebody else with the job.

There is in Edgartown, a “stone” unlike any other. It isn’t stone, it is metal. About eight feet tall, it looks more like the chopped smokestack of a steam engine than a grave marker. Painted dull green, it says simply: “Sacred to the memory of my beloved wife, Myra Reehle, died Feb’ry 1, 1893, aged 26 years . . .”

Tributes to “beloved wives” dot our cemeteries. Women were not recognized as individuals, but as a man’s wife. And they were always “beloved” in death. Let’s hope they were in life.

You can look for hours and never find a stone for a “beloved husband.” And with reason: Women lived longer and they wrote the epitaphs.

So take a walk through your cemetery. Enjoy its quiet, soak up its history and say thanks to the guys behind the lawn mowers.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner