Ithaca, New York — I live between a gorge and a cemetery, a position that often gets me to thinking about the fleeting nature of life. The gorge to our south began forming a mere 10,000 years ago at the time of the last Ice Age and its northern rim is moving in the direction of our house by an inexorable few inches each year. When the path that runs along the top of the gorge was built a hundred years ago it stood a good 15 feet back from the edge. Now parts of the path are tipping into the abyss, sections of the guardrail crumbling away. Bits of the asphalt paving have already disappeared below.
Another couple of centuries and the gorge will have made its way to our doorstep. The polar cold snaps alternating with abrupt thaws that characterize the extreme winters of climate change speed the progress of erosion. From my living room where I often play the piano I can look out and see the giant white beards of ice prying off chunks of shale from the far wall of the gorge. As the Chinese proverb suggests, maybe it’s later than we think …
Stretching to the north in the direction of Lake Cayuga is the city graveyard, a 20-acre representative of the rural cemetery movement of the 19th century. Here erosion is not the problem. The creek that once cut through the middle of the cemetery and was literally a centerpiece of the careful design of the site was canalized into a sewer sometime in the last century. Before that brute act of civil engineering, the creek tumbled down through the terraced graves past the grand Civil War monument, then ducked beneath an arched stone bridge before it plunged dramatically towards the lowlands, forming a small gorge over its final cascading descent. During biblical rains the creek rages back into life: thus this once-picturesque water feature can only be enjoyed in the most miserable weather.
Once a place of civic pride and dynastic display, the cemetery is now in state of malign neglect. No longer threatened by the erosive potential of even a small creek, the terraces still settle downslope and coax the mighty obelisks out of plumb. Gravity then takes over, and the inevitable fall comes sooner or later even to the mightiest of granite towers: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Lower-slung stones are toppled by the riding mowers that come in packs to beat back the summer grass. These little tractors inevitably ram their way through the obstacle course of graves and gravestones, knocking over a few more each year.
The crypts of the great families and the mayors of the city’s long-gone Golden Age are boarded up. Many of the names on the oldest sandstone markers have been weathered away.
From where I write now, looking north towards the lake, I can see the most famous grave, that of Faithful Daniel Jackson at the southern corner of the cemetery. The text on the simple flat stone runs:
1814 FAITHFUL 1889
Born a Slave, he followed the North Star to Freedom.
He returned to bring his aged Mother and tenderly cared for her as long as he lived.
They were not long parted for she survived him by five days.
Daniel was 75 and his Mother 103 Years of Age.
This tribute belongs of right to Faithfulness and filial affection.
A new granite stone placed next to Daniel’s a few years ago marks the resting place of his mother, Amy Coleman, born in 1786.
The lettering on Jackson’s sandstone stele was worn but still legible when a recent restoration brought the text back into clear relief, thus wiping away the welcome residue of time in an action akin, in my view, to the scrubbing of the Elgin Marbles by “curators” at the British Museum in the 1930s.
Keen to clarify the historical record of veterans’ dates, Ithaca’s volunteer “restorers” do their work on Civil War graves and other historically “important” ones. These dubious and often intrusive actions only make the pervasive ruin of the cemetery all the more obvious.
The same crew that comes in commando style to cut the grass used to make war on the groundhogs, but finally gave up battling these insurgents, who now have set up their dwellings in dozens of the spacious coffins. These industrious rodents have very particular ideas about interior design, and human bones sometimes don’t fit in with their decor.
One day while walking through the graveyard I came upon a member of the city’s public works crew, who held up a human skull that lay at the entrance to a groundhog hole. Rather than quote Hamlet, he looked at me with panic on his face and asked what he should do with the skull. I recommended he put it on top of the out-of-kilter gravestone that the skull belonged to. But when I looked back from a farther point in the cemetery, I saw him digging a hole and re-burying the skull several feet from the groundhog condominium that had displaced it.
Like many of the family plots this one had a sign that promised eternal maintenance: “Care Endowed.” Whether motivated by the theft of that endowment and the neglect of the plot or by his own commitment to the traditions of Christian burial, the groundskeeper opted for re-interment rather than above-ground display. Nothing is final, not even the final resting place. To paraphrase Johnny Cash, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold Their Bodies Down”—especially not when the groundhogs are opening up a new subdivision.
Human music and its markers are almost completely absent from the cemetery these days. Nor musical notes or —with the exception of the words of the Requiem to be seen on a marker of one of the illustrious Ithaca families of yore—the words of beloved hymns or anthems are engraved on the stones. Instead these record the names of those below, occasionally listing their places of birth, and the span of their lives, often noting the number of years, months, and days. Women are often categorized eternity as the property of their husbands, as in “Wife of Ichabod Allen.”
In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the city cemetery was as much a park where one could greet fellow citizens and admire the flowers, trees, birds, and prospect opening toward the Lake as it was a place to pay respects to the dead. Bands and choirs made music for a decorous public gathered for reflection, spiritual renewal, and civic refreshment.
There is a spot for a possible concert near the Civil War monument with its cannons, flagpole, and monument topped by cannonballs, but the only music I have ever heard in sixteen years living near the cemetery and walking in it nearly every day is on the morning of Memorial Day when a bugle plays Taps. For several years now this melody has been delivered not by a real bugler but by someone holding a “Ceremonial Bugle” to his lips. The thing has got a digital music box inside its bell and is activated with the press of a button. Never will one hear the plaintive crack of a high note emanating from this unerring technology—unless that human touch can also be programmed in.
The military has in service some 16,000 digital bugles, gleaming weapons of smart musical warfare whose piercing sound threatens—or so I imagine—to topple the surrounding monuments of the dead as if it were the trumpet of the Last Day.