Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Cemetery's used to make me really uncomfortable when I was younger.  Standing in front of a headstone, reading the words carved there, I'd suddenly realize that below my feet was a box, and in that box was a body.  What's left of a body.  Bones and dust that belonged to a person who was loved once, and is now nothing more than a name and a date.  And I'd try not to cry when I thought that someday, that will be me. 

I was a bit of a fatalist as a child.  Emo before I knew what the word meant.  I've grown out of it enough to visit a cemetery without being overwhelmed by the inevitability of my demise, but not enough to forget that there a people down there.  

Walking through Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, I find myself saying "Excuse me" when cut between the graves, or "Pardon me, Fannie" when I lift a fallen branch or brush away some dirt for a better picture.  I apologize when I trip over the stones so small they're little more than nubs in the overgrown grass.  I wonder about those little stones; were they bigger once?  Taller?  And they've now been so broken and so weathered that they've been worn down to these little bumps on the ground?  Or was the family simply too poor to afford much more than a bare minimum marker for the grave, so they've placed this little stone here for remembrance.  I find a few little stones with initials stamped on the top; I think it might be the latter. 

Memorial Day wasn't that long ago, any many of the graves still have their flags and wreaths, though there's a helpful sign at the entrance informing all visitors that these decorations will be removed and disposed of by the end of the week.  With the exception of the solider's plot in the front section, I stay away from those marked with memorial wreaths, ribbons, and flowers.  I doubt their family intended for their veterans to be my photo op. 

Woodland's an interesting place.  It's mostly hill, and there's  line of mausoleums built along the road, right into the side of one of the mounds.  It's a big monument cemetery - Dayton used to be where the money went, and anyone who could afford a big rock, got the biggest rock they could.  There are a lot of obelisks, leaving the landscape looking like it's dotted with hundreds of tiny Washington Monuments.  There are enough oversized crosses for the cemetery to host a "Crosses of Woodland" feature on their website, and many, many angles.  Angles with their hands raised in praise.  Angles mournfully touching the family stone.  Angles weeping at the feet of the family plot.  Those might be my favorite kind.

I do tend to gravitate towards the more audacious graves, the ones that are so over the top they start to suggest at a sense of humor from the person who commissioned it.  There's a copper statue of a man at the Woodland entrance, reclining in his chair atop a massive block of concrete.  It's the first thing you see when you drive in, and how could you not?  It's huge.  It demands your attention.  Clearly, this is a man who understood that the dead have no need for modesty, and I salute him for it.  This is his only lasting impression, and now everyone who walks through the gates will notice him.  I hope I can be so bold.        

I walk too far looking at the names.  There's a strong line of German heritage in this area of Ohio, and I try to spot which surnames used to have an umlaut.  Did poor Oliver Gunkel's family lose something in the Americanization of their name?  And what about the stones that just say "Mother" or "Father" or "Mary"?  There's no family plot stone to say who they belonged to, nor are there dates on these stones, saying when they died.

I end up in the Greek-Orthodox section.  I can tell it's the Greek-Orthodox section because of all the Greek.  

I've also walked as far as I can go, and it's much further than I intended.  There's a fence in front of me, separating the cemetery from the great beyond, and I've walked up an down so many hills that if I can no longer see my car.  I know that if I just put my back to the street and walk in a thiswardly direction, I'll eventually find it.  Or I'll end up back at the entrance, and I can pick up one of those maps they (allegedly) have on offer.  Squaring my shoulders, I start the trek back up the hill.     

And there in front of me at the top of that first hill, is this: 

Preserved Smith.  Were it not for actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Preserved Smith might be my favorite name ever committed to a real person.  The heartiness of "Smith."  The descriptiveness of "Preserved."  We don't much name our children for adjectives anymore.  Or words in general (unless your a celebrity scientologist.  Pilot Inspektor, anyone?).  But the virtues still remain.  

(I don't know for certain if this Preserved Smith is the Preserved Smith, but wouldn't it be a tickler if it was?  The man died in Kentucky, but he was born in Cincinnati, so let's assume they're the same man.  Just how many Preserved Smiths can there be, anyway?)   

Come back tomorrow to learn about some of Woodland's most distinguished guests.

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