There is nothing like an old cemetery for perspective.
It is the same in nearly any cemetery. In Buffalo’s vaunted Forest Lawn, a president, a prince and princess, R&B icon Rick James, robber barons, and captains of industry recline for eternity surrounded by lakes and lavish markers that include a Frank Lloyd Wright designed monument. While there are over a hundred and fifty thousand souls buried there, it is no different than the far humbler Washington Street cemetery in Geneva, home to only twenty-two hundred souls with many a marker now broken, fallen, or faded to a blur.
Cemeteries generally, and laughably, reflect the social stratification of the living. Tall obelisks declare the bones beneath them wore the flesh of wealth and social prominence, while fragile white pillows of granite lean or tilt with names and life dates sanded down to obscurity. Within the perpetual real estate at Forest Lawn all the graves are manicured to a degree, and none left to lean too far, but that separation between rich and poor in life is more visible at our historic archive of lives.
In Geneva’s historic cemetery on Washington Street a large five or six-foot square hundred-year-old monument to one married couple still looks new, announcing in bold block letters: GEORGE. William died in 1906, eleven years after Jane M. Knight, “his wife.”
The George’s reside across the grassed-over brick walk from Professor Kendrick Metcalf whose gravestone is written in Latin. With a Doctor of Sacred Theology after his name, who could have predicted back in 1866 that S.T.D. would not be a moniker of pride? IN SPRE CERTA SEURAQUE RESURRECTIONIS his gravestone declares at the top – “In the sure and certain hope of resurrection.” The full length of the gravestone’s face scrolls down, in Latin, information about this professor emeritus at Hobart College. At the very bottom, hidden by earth and grass, seemingly an afterthought, “Susan Wife Of.”
That is similar to the sad little marker that says simply, “Isabella, wife of Joseph Strong 1882.” Or worse, a little stone leaning to the left, drown in soil up to the top, “Margaretta” the only thing left showing. On the other hand, “Grant L.S.” was probably male, but a child who died at the age of twelve and so has no identity of his own either. Another male has more to his name even though his gravestone has slipped dangerously close to anonymity. It must have once been quite lovely, white granite with a graceful willow tree carved at the top. It reads, “James A. Son of Richard Sharp.”
Then there are the big shots. Eliakim Sherrill, House of Representatives, NY State Senator, Commander of the 3rdBrigade who died on the 4thof July at Gettysburg. His is a massive dark obelisk with copious information recorded about him, including: “Simple in manner (except his gravestone): Strong in intellect. In character benevolent: In religion sincere.”
Across the path and up the hill from Eliakim there is the prodigious Swift family compound. It is surrounded by stone fence posts with black iron chains strung between them, guarding the family forever.
While Forest Lawn has mausoleums complete with stained-glass windows and oak doors, Geneva’s social stratification is just as well preserved as Buffalo’s. Death, the great equalizer, hasn’t fully completed its task. But then again, my dog loves sitting on the bench at the corner of the cemetery where surely some of the fancy folk buried there would have expected visitors with more class.