Rest in peace
W hile it may strike some as ghoulish, I freely admit that I like cemeteries.
My fascination with cemeteries started early on, perhaps engendered by a haunting family tale of a great-uncle who had died in an accident in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery after visiting the grave of his young fiancee.
As a child, visiting my maternal grandparents, I would often campaign for a visit to the cemetery next to their church, Summit Presbyterian, following Sunday services. Because I was interested in family history, a tour of the family plot was especially exciting, since it constituted a walk through a three-dimensional version of the family tree in my grandmother's Bible. I could feel a personal connection with those ancestors with the antique names--Rosanna, Tobias--as I gazed on their granite tombstones and my grandparents told stories about their lives on the Pennsylvania frontier, during the Civil War and the subsequent oil boom that brought wells to the family farm, and in and around this century's two world wars.
At the church my family attended most Sundays, Plains Presbyterian (so named because it sits at the edge of a long, broad plain, a rarity in hilly Western Pennsylvania), the cemetery held no ancestors but nevertheless a fair amount of fascination. My friends and I would compete to see who could find the oldest grave--some dated back to the beginning of the nineteenth century--as we ran among the tombstones after Sunday School.
As an adult, I haven't made many pilgrimages to the Summit cemetery, although I expect I will someday. For now, it's still too heavily freighted with the memories of the losses of my grandparents, my grandfather just two years ago. But there have been a number of other cemeteries that have claimed my affections in the intervening years.
In the mid-1970s, when I was living in Pittsburgh, I would often go for walks in Allegheny Cemetery (one of the city's two great cemeteries, the other being Homewood), which aficionados recognize as among America's most beautiful. Spread over several heavily wooded hills that rise above the Allegheny River, it is laced with drives and paths lined by graves and mausoleums. Rural when it was founded in the 1840s but now surrounded by tightly packed urban neighborhoods, it's still a wonderful spot for contemplation of issues both trivial and cosmic.
Despite the history of segregation, both racial and religious, in many cemeteries, they are often amazingly egalitarian places. Such is decidedly the case with Allegheny Cemetery, which can claim composer and songwriter Stephen Collins Foster; Baseball Hall-of-Famer Josh Gibson, the "Negro League Babe Ruth"; actress and singer Lillian Russell; and Harry Thaw, the scion of a wealthy Pittsburgh family who became famous when he killed architect Stanford White in a fit of jealousy over White's relationship with his wife, Evelyn Nesbit.
Later in the 1970s, after I had moved to Princeton, New Jersey, I found myself living in a house whose backyard adjoined the Princeton Cemetery. Although not affiliated with the university, within its precincts were buried many of Princeton's most illustrious founders and early alumni. But it also reflected the broader life of a small community that has played an outsize role in all areas of American society. Publisher Sylvia Beach is buried there, as are Aaron Burr Sr., a president of the university, and his son, Aaron Burr Jr., U.S. vice president and duelist, U.S. President Grover Cleveland and his daughter Ruth (for whom the Baby Ruth candy bar was named), Great Awakening theologian and Princeton president Jonathan Edwards, author John O'Hara, and Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon, another president of the university. After my time, Princeton Cemetery became the final resting place of Kitty and Jose Menendez, the former residents of the town who were slain in Los Angeles, California, by their sons.
Most of my cemetery meanderings these days take place right here on the Kenyon campus. The cemetery is one of the most beautiful and peaceful spots on a beautiful and peaceful campus. And while it may not be unique, it is one of only a few cemeteries to grace the grounds of an American college or university.
It's also, like a family cemetery or plot, an engaging record of a distinctive history. Its towering oaks shelter the graves of alumni and trustees, of carpenters and masons who helped build the College, of presidents and professors and their wives and children, of students who died before their promise could be fulfilled. Within the fence these days are even the remains of several of my friends, among them my Kenyon classmate Larry Wittenbrook and McIlvaine Professor of English Gerrit Roelofs.
There are many others here at the College who have personal relationships with the cemetery. For Liz Forman '73, assistant director of admissions, it's the resting place of her grandmother, Robb Reavill Ransom, and her grandfather, Kenyon Review founder John Crowe Ransom. For my public-affairs colleague Hays Stone, it's where she goes daily to commune with the spirit of her son, Michael Stone '92, who died while he was a student at the College.
There has been some controversy on campus about the closeness of the new music building to the cemetery. One grave, that of Kenyon president Lorin Andrews, who died in 1861, had to be excavated and the remains reinterred a few yards away. Some people have suggested that constructing a building so close to hallowed ground borders on the sacrilegious. But it's my view that the new building's proximity to the graveyard is a good thing, because it will give the cemetery added prominence. It's been easy for visitors to miss the cemetery, tucked away behind Rosse Hall, but now, with a major entrance to the new music building facing the cemetery, more of them will be likely to explore this continuously updated illustration of the College's past.
I can't say I'm not afraid of death. I think it's silly for anyone who hasn't faced death, up close and personal, to make that claim. But I can say that I'm not afraid of the dead. They've been my boon companions on many a Sunday afternoon, igniting my imagination and shepherding my reveries, great and small, as I've strolled through the landscapes of their final earthly homes.
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