There is no denying the allure of cemeteries this time of the year. While people's thoughts turn more quickly to the imagery of Halloween -- the looming specter of a tombstone, the fleeting suggestion of a ghost -- there's something darkly seductive about the cemeteries themselves. Perhaps it's the romantic Brontean handling of grief, with weeping angels and forbidding mausoleum facades. It could also be how the finely etched lines and shadowy colors of the statuary -- so like Edward Gorey's amusing but sinister sketches -- stand out in stark contrast to the fiery amber leaves of autumn.
It could also be that in cemeteries, the notion of one's own mortality hits home. The falling chestnuts and last violent outpouring of bright foliage before the long sleep of winter are just one more reminder that we've all gotta go someday, whether we like it or not.
Carolyn Allbright is well aware of the duality of cemeteries, that they are in some ways as much for the living as they are for the dead. Having studied cemeteries for most of her adult life, she knows as much about the local cemeteries as she does about how to read the symbols -- whether they're harps, tree trunks or lilies -- engraved on tombstones across the country. In years past, she regularly took annual tour groups through Greenwood, Riverside and Fairmount cemeteries as part of a program at the Community Colleges of Spokane. So who better to show us around these quiet and eerie places on the edges of town?
The park-like calm of American cemeteries are a far
cry from the way burials were handled in the past.
Allbright says that the first "modern" cemetery, Pere Lachaise (which is nonetheless hundreds of years old) in Paris, was one of the first to incorporate a park-like setting with room for plots, trees, statuary and lanes. Which makes us wonder, what did they do before?
"People were either buried in the churchyard, which often got pretty crowded, or they were buried in basements," she says.
As cemeteries themselves began to look more stately, so too did the look of the monuments within. As far as Allbright is concerned, cemeteries are as significant artistically as museums and galleries.
"Some of the most beautiful sculpture you see in Spokane, or anywhere for that matter, is in cemeteries," she says. "The quality of the carving, the attention to detail... it's often quite remarkable." In some cases, the lettering on the stones is even artful, incorporating elegant and spooky old fonts and sometimes the deceased's own signature.
The three oldest cemeteries in Spokane -- Riverside, Greenwood and Fairmount -- read like a Who's Who of early Spokane. In Greenwood, one of the first monuments visitors see is the large stone marker dedicated to Chief Spokane Garry, and on the winding road up to Greenwood's terrace, a row of Grecian pillars commemorates the legacy of the Cowles family. In the Riverside cemetery, just across the road from Greenwood, small family mausoleums and ornate monuments spell out more familiar names -- Ridpath, Cannon, Peyton, Ide, Finch, Paulsen and Graves. And at Fairmount, one can find the final resting places of Patrick "Patsy" Clark, Levi "Al" and May Arkwright Hutton, Gonzaga architect Herman Preusse, Joe Albi, and the Pettet family. But while these monuments are as impressive for their size as for their locally recognized names, it's sometimes the more ordinary names that have the most interesting stories. In Greenwood, Allbright points out the marker for Jimmy Durkin, one of the town's first saloon owners, and, as the stone points out, "a man of his word."
"He used to say 'Don't buy booze if your children need shoes,' " she says. "He was a decent guy, and he helped a lot of people." Also in Greenwood are the tombstones from one of the city's most awful tragedies, in which 24 men were killed by an accidental dynamite explosion downtown.
Another remarkable historical aspect of the Riverside cemetery in particular, is that Kirtland Cutter designed the cemetery's original arched entrance (since replaced with modern materials). He also helped design the Riverside Mausoleum, with its exposed and painted beams and Mediterranean influences.
Nowhere is the historical element of cemeteries more apparent, perhaps, than in the military sections. While the battlefields of the Civil War are thousands of miles away, Greenwood has a small section of soldiers who once fought in the Civil War and later moved to the Inland Northwest.
"The stones are pretty much the same today. Most of these are from the Civil War, but there might be some towards the back from the Spanish-American War. They often don't have much information, but they do have the soldier's name, rank and where his unit was based. There are people here from all over the country."
Cemeteries also tell a story about our
changing attitudes towards death. Allbright points out the size of the stones and how they mirror the cultural mores of the time.
"In old New England cemeteries, death was so common that they hardly even grieved." she says. "But in Victorian times, everything exploded. They gave themselves over to grieving wholeheartedly. And that's where a lot of these enormous monuments come from. And now what we're seeing is a complete denial of death."
She adds that in addition to perfect lawns and unobtrusive flat stones, many cemeteries have what she calls "condos for the dead," new structures that are a bit like a mini-mausoleum for 25-50 people.
The images that decorate turn-of-the-century monuments speak of a time when mortality rates were much higher. Lilies signify the hope of resurrection, and a tree trunk with the branches cut off is meant to illustrate "a life cut short," as was often the case with influenza outbreaks, measles epidemics and the complications of childbirth.
Some of the symbols have more to do with the person's activities during life than their hopes for the afterlife. Allbright gestures toward a small harp engraved on a tombstone, which indicates the person buried there was most likely a musician. In other cases, it's not uncommon to see the symbols of the Freemasons or the emblem of the Elks.
"In a lot of the little communities around here, there wasn't a lot going on," she continues, "but these fraternal orders, the Odd Fellows, the Woodmen of the World, the Masons, offered a social life and a sense of belonging."
While it's commonly believed that
death respects neither age, race
nor wealth, those distinctions still hold true in cemeteries. As in life, cemeteries often have "neighborhoods" set apart from one another by nationality, religion and social importance. Just up the road from Greenwood is the Jewish cemetery, Mt. Nebo, and at one time the only cemeteries where Catholics could be buried were at Fairmount and Holy Cross. Greenwood has a Japanese section; many Greek immigrants are buried in a section near the mausoleum at Riverside, and at Fairmount, the many of the Italian headstones have inset photos -- even, in one case, of a man already at rest in his casket.
Most poignant perhaps are the non-endowment care sections of the cemeteries, which are underwatered, overgrown and unkempt. Homemade crosses of cement and marbles, Boy Scout ingenuity and even handsome metal headstones from a turn-of-the-century Sears Roebuck catalog mark graves that would otherwise be completely invisible under pine needles and long grass. Allbright says that a local scout troop made many of the crooked crosses in Greenwood's non-endowment care section, and that it isn't necessarily poverty that indicates who would be buried here.
"Some people prefer it. They like the fact that it's natural back here and that they can care for the site themselves if they want to."
Surprisingly, Allbright doesn't know any ghost stories connected to the cemeteries. "From what I understand of ghosts -- and I do believe they exist -- is that they don't understand that they're dead. They return to where they were in life because to hang around cemeteries, they'd have to face the fact of death," she says. "But cemeteries aren't scary. They're actually very peaceful."