—Ithaca, New York
I live between a gorge and a graveyard. The gorge just to the south began forming some ten thousand years ago at the end of last Ice Age, and its northern rim is moving inexorably in the direction of our house.
When the path that runs along the rim of the gorge was built a hundred years ago it stood well back from the edge. Now parts of the path are tipping into the abyss, sections of the guardrail crumbling away. Bits of asphalt tumble down the shale walls to be swept away by the spring-swollen creek below.
Until the 1950s a bridge spanned the gorge and connected a street called Dewitt Place on either side. The street’s 100 block is on the south rim and the 200 block on the north. With the bridge removed before the erosion could brought it down, the two segments of the same street are now divided by the chasm, puzzling many a delivery driver or tourist back in the days before Google.
I’ve always assumed that the street was named after the early nineteenth-century New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who eagerly predicted that the last Iroquois would disappear—more accurately be disappeared by him, a proponent of Indian Removal—from the state within a generation; perhaps his own name will be disappeared from parks, roads like ours, and schools in this state by the present generation. As for Clinton’s hopes for a New York cleansed of Native Americans: he was wrong. The Six Nations are still here.
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 our house, we can look out and see the giant white beards of ice prying off chunks of shale from the far wall of the gorge.
Stretching to the north in the direction of Lake Cayuga, whose deep narrow basin was carved by the receding glaciers, is the city graveyard, a twenty-acre example of the rural cemetery movement of the nineteenth century. Erosion is not a problem in the cemetery. The creek that once cut through the middle of it and was a centerpiece of the careful design of the grounds was canalized in the last century. Before that brutal engineering intervention, 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. Only during heavy rains does the creek rise from the dead when the diverting sewer can’t take in the increased flow. This once-picturesque water feature can only be enjoyed in the most miserable weather.
A place of great civic pride and dynastic display in the nineteenth century, the cemetery is now mostly in a state of malign neglect. A vivid description of the place opens a wonderful book about the rural cemetery movement by Cornell Professor Aaron Sachs, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition.
No longer troubled by the erosive potential of even a small creek, the terraces of graves settle downslope nonetheless. Gravity coaxes the mighty obelisks out of plumb and will eventually topple even the mightiest of the granite towers. Other, lower-slung stones are felled by the riding mowers that come in packs to beat back the summer grass. These tractors ram their way through the obstacle course of graves, knocking over a few more each year.
The crypts of the great families and the mayors of the city’s long-gone Golden Age have been boarded up until last year. Renovation of these mausoleums has been underway since last year.
From where I write now, looking north towards the lake, I can see one of the most visited graves, that of Faithful Daniel Jackson. 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 but 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 decade ago marks the resting place of his mother, Amy Coleman, born in 1786.
Keen to clarify the historical record of veterans’ dates, Ithaca’s volunteer “restorers” do their work on Civil War graves and other markers as they have done on Jackson’s. 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 more than decade ago 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 wielding a weed-whacker and holding up a human skull that he’d apparently picked up 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 seemed to belong 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 subterranean condominium from which it had been evicted.
Like many of the family plots this one had a “Care Endowed”sign that promised eternal maintenance. 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 a final resting place. To paraphrase Johnny Cash, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold Their Bodies Down”—especially not when the exploding groundhog population is opening up a new subdivision.
Human music and its markers are mostly absent from the cemetery these days. The words of the Requiem adorn a monument for one of the illustrious Ithaca families of yore, and the lines of beloved hymns or anthems are engraved on a few stones. Mostly though, the inscriptions list the name and life span, though some early fashion included the place of birth and sometimes noted the number of years, months, and days lived by the deceased. Women are often categorized in 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 both a park and repository for the dead. One could greet fellow citizens and admire the flowers, trees, birds, and the prospect opening toward the lake. Bands made music for a decorous public gathered for reflection, spiritual renewal, and civic refreshment.
There is a good spot for a possible concert near the Civil War monument with its cannons, cannonballs, and but the only music I have ever heard in more than two decades living near the cemetery is on the morning of Memorial Day when a bugle plays Taps. For at least a decade now this mournful melody has been delivered not by a real bugler but by a man holding a “Ceremonial Bugle” to his lips. The instrument has got a digital music box inside its bell and is activated with the press of a button. You won’t hear the plaintive crack of a high note emanating from this Potemkin trumpet—though presumably that human touch can also be programmed in.
There is a bugler shortage, and the military has in service some 16,000 digital bugles, gleaming weapons of smart musical warfare whose piercing threatens to topple the still-standing monuments if it were the trumpet of the Last Day.