Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sledding with the Dead

Sorry for the long delay in posting...it’s been a chaotic few weeks, with changes in the household, job changes, and other projects taking precedence. But at last I give you: Fun with Dead People!

No, not quite THAT much fun. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about never being able to get the stench out of your Members Only jacket.

During my college years, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, a city in the sweltering armpit of that fine regressive state. Though it does have a good art museum and the Shakespeare Festival theatre – and AUM, my alma mater – the coolest thing, by far, is the antebellum graveyard right in the heart of the city, Oakwood Cemetery. Burials date from before the Civil War through modern years, including the grave of Hank Williams, Sr., and a sobering 299 “unknown” soldiers from the south’s most bloody conflict. (I know. I personally counted them.) Kind of strange to think of that many unidentifiable bodies each given a headstone. I always wonder if their ghosts were pissed off at the irony of being reburied with honors, but anonymously.

Among the park-sized grounds which sprawl over two very full hillsides one may also discover a crowded, old-world-style Jewish burial section; imposing mausoleums; and more Victorian sentimentality than you can shake a mourning hair-ring at.

This was my absolute favorite hangout. I would frequently take a book there to read for hours, or explore the seemingly endless headstones on foot...the best way to “collect” a graveyard, as very little of it will ever be accessible by hearse-roads. I preferred to roam among the Victorian burials, as they often have the most elaborate memorials. Not for nothing did Ambrose Bierce label mausoleums “the final and funniest folly of the rich.” Certainly, the amount of marble, personalized statuary, wrought-iron, and stained glass which make up whole neighborhoods of the snootily deceased at Oakwood stagger the mind and the wallet. And yet I felt an affinity for these crumbled husks, most of them forgotten in their family plots as later generations married off and moved away. I’d scatter wildflower seeds, take photos of the most elaborate (or most bizarre) statuary, and talk to them.

What? Yes, I enjoyed being alone in a fine and private place, thank you. Hmf.

A Weeping Angel surveys her favorite magnolia tree

One March, a freak snowstorm blanketed the city...well, okay. Drew a soft fluffy knit throw over the city and made it some cocoa. It was only a couple of inches. But SNOW! In the DEEP SOUTH! While most denizens ran around seeking firewood, s’mores, and condoms, I had one purpose: to see how my beloved cemetery appeared in the clear air and whispering snowdrifts.

And it was stunning.

The wind had crafted beautiful paintwork with the snow all night, and in the grey daylight, all was still, cool, and delicately iced. Headstones bore caps like petit-fours. Wrought iron fencework boasted new fretworking of purest white. Angels beseeched heaven for some gloves and scarves, is it too much to ask since they have to keep watch over some schlep’s grave forever until the acid rain eats them, for crying out loud. Everywhere, snow coated trees, graves, monuments...and the hillsides.

The really, startlingly steep hillsides, terminating in a ravine you’d have trouble climbing back out of if you missed the footbridge, assuming you didn’t trip and hit your head on one of the granite stones on your way down and solve the problem of ever getting up the hill again. And on these scary-steep hills...kids were sledding. I have no idea who the hell in Montgomery, AL even had the prescience to own a sled, but there they were, dodging graves, whooping and laughing. Despite my love of the overblown artifice of the Victorians, this use of the graveyard was the best I’ve ever seen.

Hey you dadgum kids! Keep it down up there! We're tryin' to discuss the War of Northern Aggression!

 My advice to any of you within reach of an amazing cemetery, be it on sacred grounds or secular forty-five-degree slopes: become familiar with the place. Walk its paths, learn its names. Sow flowers, and take photos, and know every weird statue and tragic lamb by heart. Make it yours.

That way, you’ll know exactly which spots to drag your sled to when it snows. Not to mention the best escape routes when the dead claw their way up to express their annoyance with all that dadgum laughing.


  1. I grew up in one of the great cemeteries of the world. /Users/johnwomack/Desktop/LetGloryBe_1.tif

    1. Vicksburg? Yes...impressive! (I can't see your pic, sorry...)

  2. Another fun read. Finally a friend who loves cemeteries as much as I do. Once transplanted wildflowers from my great-grandfather's grave to my garden. Never explored one in the snow though. That sounds loverly.
    ox, Unk

    1. Hell yes! Wherever I go I collect them. The Tucson ones I've found are the boring flat-stone style, unfortunately. But I've enjoyed them in Charleston and Williamsburg and Tampa!