1. Durham, North Carolina
I’ve spent much of the last year in graveyards. When we were sent home from school about a year ago, my twin brother Oliver and I would bike most days around the Maplewood Cemetery in Durham. Sometimes our neighbor Barry and/or our dad would join us, but often it was just the two of us, our revolving pedals, and all those tombstones. It was the most beautiful spring in Durham I could remember—so green and cool.
On one side of the street is the “new” graveyard, with paved roads, where bodies have been buried since the 70s. On the other side is the “old” graveyard, with gravel roads, which houses the bones of unnamed confederate soldiers, crumbling mausoleums of the Duke family, and a small Jewish graveyard. (The first funeral I attended was in that Jewish graveyard. A family friend died of brain cancer. It poured and poured at the burial. The little oak coffin slipped from the hands of the undertakers as people wept and wailed. We threw dirt on the grave that was laden with water. The dark earth, rich with minerals, smelled like blood. I remember that rain. I feel my shoes, which were too small, sink softly into the mud beneath me. I hear the cars, with their windshield wipers wiping, that drove by the scene that afternoon. I do not see myself at all.)
Oliver and I would race around the New Graveyard, bounding down green hills before lying on the ground in the shadow of a willow oak tree beside our favorite grave. The grave commemorates the lives of Ivy Claiborne Smith Woods IV and his mother, Judy Elizabeth Matthews—two people I have never met. Their grave is gaudy in all the right ways. Made of reflective black stone, the grave features a built-in bench, with inscribed lyrics about Jesus and strumming on a guitar from a Hal Bynum country song, and a bird bath. On one side of the grave is a painting of the mother and son together in heaven, laughing. On the other side is a painting of Ivy Woods IV, turning to us as if to say hello. He’s wearing a cowboy hat and sitting in his wheelchair beside a big blue lake with butterflies and cattails. Next to him is a German shepherd panting in delight. In Ivy’s hands is an electric guitar and beside him is a fishing rod with three trout caught on its hook. I find the simplicity of his human pleasures so poignant; his great vision of the coming world is just sitting by a little lake and playing guitar beside his dog. If this isn’t abundant living then I sure as hell don’t know what is!
In the Old Graveyard Oliver and I walked our bikes over the gravel in the tenderness of spring and the humidity of summer. One day, a boy with a sheet over his head posed as a ghost while his mother took photos of him in front of a big crumbling tomb. One day, I looked at the broken graves of forgotten people. One day, months later, in the brown and soggy winter, I walked through the graveyard distanced and masked with a friend from highschool. She was someone I loved and once knew well, but now there was too much space between us. She showed me a broken tomb. Peering in I saw the white glint of bones, of mud, and of condom wrappers and cigarette buds pushed through the cracks. “Most of the bones have been stolen,” she told me. “Shit,” I said and then paused. “I’d be cool with it if someone stole my bones.” I laughed at myself, embarrassed and not sure what I meant by that. We walked through the puddles, crossed the street, and ate PB&Js quietly in the drizzling rain beside my favorite grave.
2. Providence, Rhode Island
During my gap semester in Providence I split my graveyard-time between the North Burial Ground and the Swan Point Cemetery. I rode past the tombstones on a red Fuji bike I bought off Craigslist. It was a beautiful bicycle, with curved handlebars, lever gear shifters, and yellow-trim tires, but it had mechanical issues…often. Nevertheless, I owe a lot to that old bicycle. It led me across alleys beside Brown’s campus, down stretching bike paths on the water, and, of course, through the winding streets of graveyards. On it, I felt the soft decay of autumn like I never had before.
The Swan Point cemetery is an old New England cemetery that sits right on the water. Full of towering obelisks, glassy stones, and angel statues, the place feels hallowed in an inhuman way. The older graves bear names weighted with authority. Their epitaphs label them as great leaders of industry, honest politicians, wise thinkers, good fathers and sons, and loving wives and mothers. Around the cemetery is a rock wall made from huge boulders stacked on one another; stones pulled from the earth to make holes. Sometimes I would sit on the grass and watch the birds take off in plumes and skid their feet across the glass surface of the water. Across this tendril of ocean there was an old textile factory and by it a street lamp that flickered on and off.
The North Burial Ground was by the highway and every part of it shook with the roar of traffic. Walking with my bike in hand, I saw gravestones flatted and thinned by years of cold wind and masked families putting coffins into the earth. There was also a pond in the North Burial Ground, which froze as winter set in. I threw sticks at the ice and they slid across the surface. I threw rocks and watched the ice splinter.
The entrances to both graveyards are littered with signs saying “no dogs allowed,” but people walked their dogs anyway. Seeing a dog made me smile in a slightly sad way. All I have to say on the matter is, when I’m dead, I’d be more than happy if a dog shits on my grave.
3. New Haven, Connecticut
Today I walked at Grove Street Cemetery as the shadow of the afternoon set in. In the melting snow, I saw the old tombstones with broken pieces reaffixed with scars of concrete. In due time, all epitaphs will be blown away and the stones will crumble, but now somebody’s hands mix concrete and stick the broken pieces of graves back together. I thank those hands.