Graves have their own way of touching us

CommentJuly 2, 2012 

My friend Jim Rogers explains the psychological value of graves to the living this way. "A grave is a place to walk to and a place to walk away from." This is concise way of saying -- a place to pay tribute to the dead, then return to the living.

With cremation now common, there are fewer graves to walk to and from. You don't hike to the base of Mount McKinley and meditate on grandpa's ashes scattered at 18,000 feet.

I have visited cemeteries for 40 years, often as a tourist come to pay tribute.

On a couple of occasions, I walked through graveyards in towns dead themselves, Tofty near Manley Hot Springs, for example, where only the former mining camp's name survives, and spindly willows cover the graves. I also have been to large metropolitan cemeteries and paused at the final resting place of the world renown, including Henry James, William James, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, Samuel Adams, Duke Ellington, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. I don't consider Grant's Tomb a grave -- or Napoleon's for that matter. They are monuments. Ellington, Jacquet, Davis and Hampton are neighbors in New York's Woodlawn Cemetery. Hampton's stone has the name of one of his signature tune's as an inscription: Flying Home.

I encountered the jazz musicians while searching for the grave of rocker Felix Pappalardi whose wife shot him in a domestic dispute. Woodlawn is so large and sprawling I never found Felix, not even with a map provided by the management.

In Germany I visited Richard Wagner, in Ireland William Butler Yeats. As I approached Wagner's grave, a thunder storm began and lightning filled the sky. I took this as a signal the composer of "Gotterdammerung" did not want to be disturbed. Yeats' grave is famous not just for the poet but for the inscription he chose for his stone -- "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman pass by."

I have read poetry at graves, sung songs, meditated in silence. I have also brought gifts -- usually flowers. Chief Joseph's grave in Washington state is remarkable for the variety of trinkets and charms visitors leave. Some leave cash money, pennies, nickels, dimes or quarters.

It may surprise you to learn visitors can express too much homage. Oscar Wilde's grave (in Paris) has been defaced by the chemicals in lip stick left by thousands of women who kissed his stone.

In Fairbanks, I bring roses to Ida Martin and Frank Flynn in the Clay Street Cemetery. Neither enjoyed fame but they touched me long after they died.

Ida ran a trading post at Tolovana on the Tanana River with her husband Henry. When my dad stopped there in 1937, a few weeks after he arrived in Alaska, she was the voice of experience, urging Fabian to become a gold miner and forget trapping. "There's no money in trapping, kid," she said. The kid ignored her advice but always described this plain-spoken, good-hearted woman with affection, an affection I inherited. Frank, a Dubliner who joined the gold rush, came to my attention because of a typo I spotted on his grave stone. The name of the city in which he died, Fairbanks, is spelled wrong: Fairbans.

I'm thinking the stone was ordered from Seattle, and when it arrived without a "k" the funeral home director said, "Can't send it back." Poor Frank -- to be saddled with Fairbans for eternity.

There are no typos in cremation.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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