(written October 29, 2009, sorry so late)
As a field trip for my psychology of death class, today we went to Glenwood Cemetery on Court Street. After wasting a quarter of a tank of gas by driving around in circles, several times taking the wrong fork and ending up in Grand Blanc once, I finally pulled in to the drive. Despite my agitation and frustration at being half an hour late, as soon as I got out of my car and stepped on that sacred ground, I felt at peace.
I was surrounded with burial markers so old as to be difficult to read and others, shiny new, as if recently placed. The ground is dotted with soft green moss and bright orange maple leaves. And, there was a calm silence surrounding the place (which, at that moment I needed badly because the young woman I had given a ride to barely took a breath or shut her mouth during our entire circular, frustrating tour of the streets of Flint).
As I walked along the one lane drive looking for our classmates, I passed by familiar names: Mott (I said a small thank you at that one for their family’s generosity which continues on to this day), Whiting, Dort, and even White, my mom’s maiden name.
Finally, we caught up to our class, our professor, and the sexton who was giving them a tour. He was going over the who’s who in the great history of flint and the history of the motor car industry and lumber baronies of 150 years ago. So many of the names mentioned weren’t on my radar as being of significance, but without these brave and resilient souls, Flint wouldn’t be what it is today- or what it was in its heyday. Decker. Payne. McCreery.
Each grave marker has a unique beauty, even those that started out plain but have been worn at the edges by time and the elements. My favorite was what I at first thought to be trees that had been cut to stumps. There was a whole family of markers in the shape and texture of trees that had been felled. My professor said that during Victorian times, the chopped tree motif was a common symbol for a life cut short. I left the lane to touch a couple of these, to feel the stone of them and get a closer look at their striking, simple beauty. If I were going to choose a grave marker for myself and a living tree were not a possibility, these beautiful markers could be used as a model for my monument. Interspersed here and there among the stone grave markers are similarly shaped stone objects with metal chain loops sticking out of the sides. These stone hitching posts are there so that we can secure the horse we rode in on. Whitwam. Bergin. Lake.
I was really surprised among the older markers, before antibiotics or sterile anything, how long some of these people lived: 70, 80,90 even. Of course, these seemed to be the monied folk who could afford the extra expense and care of a doctor or a midwife to attend births and illnesses that the poorer folks couldn’t afford. (Things don’t seem to have changed much in that regard.) McCall. Burlingame. Durand.
We were given worksheets to fill out to draw our attention to different aspects of how death memorials and lifespans have changed through time. Since I was so late, I will probably go back on Monday to take a slower look, a more mindful walk at my leisure. Decker. Bishop. MacKinnon.
As I drove out through the wrought iron gates, I posed the question to the chatterbox: “I wonder if there are any black people or Native Americans buried here.” She shrugged off my query and said that you can’t really tell from the names. I think, from the political, social and economic power of many of these families, it is safe to answer “probably not” to my question. During the time of some of these deaths, the underground railroad was very active in the area and, by the 19 teens, a lot of poor white and black folks were migrating here from the South, bringing jazz and Jim Crow. Fenton. Burton. Smith.
Many of the graves are planted in goupings, where the largest marker is in the center, memorializing the family name and patriarch. Smaller headstones are arranged around it naming men and their wives, gathered around the larger marker, like family members roasting marshmallows around the campfire flames reaching toward the stars and making wishes for the future. Aldrich. Northrup. Hess.