Respects amongst the plots

6 April 2012

If you google the cemetery where she’s buried, you find that she’s lying beside a wide range of semi-famous crime figures. Many have nicknames that render their portraits as fearsome and quixotic, like Tough Tony and Frankie Shots. On the other hand, one was a horse trainer nicknamed Sunny. The name Capone is mentioned more than once. There’s also a smattering of turn-of-the-century boxers and policemen of Irish descent, Diamond Jim Brady (a man known for his gluttony, among other things), some minor state legislators, and that character actor who played the loyal bodyguard Luca Brasi in The Godfather.

Considering her feelings about respectability, it’s a good thing she didn’t know ahead of time about the life histories of most of her bedfellows here. But if she had, she might have cracked a joke: at least they were Catholics. Actually, I always assumed statements like that were jokes — but what do I know? Maybe she meant them seriously.

Although I’ve tramped through a large number of historic cemeteries lately, it’s been done out of my curiosity about ancient methods of burial rather than to pay my respects to anyone in particular. I mean, one can’t come to Boston without a few of the oldest burying grounds or the glamorous 19th-century Mount Auburn Cemetery out in Cambridge with all its Brahmins, exotic trees, and garden design. My family, in contrast, is not the cemetery-oriented type; our own dearly departed are buried all over the country, seldom more than one or two per cemetery. History bats ordinary people all around the country, willy-nilly.

One might go so far as to say that my family’s story of itinerancy is representative of the whole. Our nation is now so mobile, so transient, that we can no longer harbor the fantasy that one’s whole family might be gathered together at last, lined up in a row under a stone that ties all of you together by a family name or two.

There’s also the question of changing ideas about burials and remembrance. I’m fairly certain I don’t need a plot in a cemetery, my name on a stone, even if my bedfellows have names like Frankie Shots. I sort of like the idea of a makeshift service, à la Walter and The Dude scattering Donny’s ashes all over themselves near the end of The Big Lebowski.

In the middle of the cemetery, somewhat inexplicably, a sign reads PLOTS. Perhaps it was intended as a road sign in the vein of those no-duh signs you sometimes see announcing THICKLY SETTLED or WATCH OUT FOR CHILDREN. Still, one can’t help but read it for the double meaning of the word plots, the meaning that ties it to storytelling.

My grandmother didn’t have a nickname as glamorous as Tough Tony, but aren’t all of us just a mess of plots? She in particular was full of stories and family gossip. These cemeteries are full of them. My sister and I stand in front of her stone, thinking about those stories she told that never quite cohered into one as memorable as Diamond Jim’s — but there you have it. Paying our respects out there in the plots.

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11 Responses to “Respects amongst the plots”

  1. servetus Says:

    I wonder idly if it’s easier, visiting the dear departed, when your whole family isn’t in the same place? Not as heavy? I’m glad your grandmother is buried with gangsters, this would make a great closing line of a poem.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, interesting — that hadn’t occurred to me. Dunno if that’s the case…we went to her grave in particular because of our connection to her. Shouldn’t that make us more sentimental? Or perhaps it would be more comforting if she were amongst her sisters and brothers? It’s hard to tell how I’d feel otherwise.

      Are many generations of your family buried together? I’d love to know what that might be like, esp if you knew some of them well.

      • servetus Says:

        On my mother’s side they are, right back into the 1870s, all in the same cemetery, not all in the same part, but generations close to each other. One thing that’s weird is that I visited it with greatgrandmother, grandmother and mother at various times and they have memories of people I never knew, which they get reproduced when you see the tombstones. The graves of the people I knew are less jarring to see, somehow, than those whom I didn’t know with whom I associate other people’s memories.

      • Didion Says:

        That is just so, so cool. And probably very unusual for our day & age. I wonder if my own family’s high level of mobility is more unusual than I thought — both sides uprooted by the Depression during the ’30s most recently (but let’s face it: international histories led all manner of ancestors to leave for parts unknown at various times in American history).

        When my family talks about our history, it’s replete with different addresses, none of which I’ve seen. They talk about the Vista Street house. Or my great-grandmother’s place near King’s Highway. Or the place down the road from Cousin Susie (Susie being one of those mystery relatives from back in the 1920s). All the more reason for the scatteredness of our dearly departed. I can only envy you the concentration of headstones in a single cemetery.

      • servetus Says:

        I hadn’t thought of the Depression, but that totally makes sense. Also your family were not, I assume, in agriculture. Owning land (being cash-poor, as they used to say) makes it harder to move.

        On dad’s side it’s a completely different story. Part of it is that family feeling there is different, and part of it is that his mother was one of 14 surviving siblings. They went all over the state, and people are buried all over the place. It would be a fun novel to write, Obscure Wisconsin Cemeteries and the Relatives You Have Buried in Them

      • Didion Says:

        On my mother’s side they were farmers, but quite poor ones whose land couldn’t support a large extended family. It’s no surprise to learn that many family farms continue to have large extended families whose multiple incomes all go to keep the family farm from being purchased by a corporation.

        I love the idea of the Chasing The Dead novel. I want to start mine with an imagined scene of my grandmother encountering Tough Tony at her gravesite.

      • servetus Says:

        they have a scuffle, and your granny wins!

      • Didion Says:

        I think she could probably use her “avocado dip” (recipe circa 1952) as a very effective firearm even with Italian mobsters. And I’m quite certain some of that costume jewelry (brooches circa 1948) must have hidden deadly weapons.

  2. judiang Says:

    Interesting post, Didion. I love your way with words. With a grandfather, 2 grandmothers, mother and uncle buried in the same cemetery, it does get heavy because it calls up so many memories at once.

    • Didion Says:

      I’m envious for so many reasons. It truly is a lovely thing to have one’s family together in a single place. That would make me all the more want to join them. But with my own family so scattered, I’ve got to think hard about what I want. I’m curious whether anyone else out there is uninterested in the stone and the plot of land.

  3. servetus Says:

    When I was younger I wanted my body buried. Didn’t care about the stone. Now that I am (a) older (b) not likely to have my own children and (c) aware of how much it costs, I’ll be fine with whatever my executor decides to do. I’d rather any money left in my estate go to my nieces than contribute to any memorial for me.


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