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.