Today is the first day of holiday break for my husband and I. Technically, it’s still finals week, but all the finals for my classes are take-home or oral finals that are already done. And technically, it’s the beginning of my husband’s sabbatical, and not his break, but we’re not going to think about that, are we?
I guess not everyone would think the perfect thing to do on the first day of your holiday break is a stroll through the cemetery, but why not? There is much wisdom in learning to live comfortably with death, and wisdom is often in short supply around the holidays. So we headed down to Springdale Cemetery in Madison.
I actually had to search through all my old Madison Monday posts because I could not believe I’ve never written about Springdale Cemetery here. You could dedicate an entire blog to Springdale Cemetery and never run out of material. I headed there looking for names. Maybe all writers struggle with giving their characters names, and the Internet can help. But I figure there’s really nothing like a good cemetery to supply some interesting and resonant names.
Springdale Cemetery has been around since 1810, which makes it one year younger than the town of Madison itself. That seems about like the right order. Establish your town. Build a cemetery. Springdale is tucked into the little valley formed by Crooked Creek on the north side of town. There are very, very old graves tucked up on the side of the hill. And newer sections where people are still being buried. There are huge, strange monuments and tombstones. And tiny obscure ones.
Cemeteries tell a thousand stories. I could start now writing stories based on the gravestones in Springdale and never stop until I was ready for one myself. So, there’s no way I can begin to cover them all, but here are a few interesting pictures and stories just from today’s short stroll.
There are Civil War headstones in Springdale, and one in particular caught my notice. John L. Devou lived from 1843 to 1874 and served in the Indiana Division. Under his name was carved, “Musician.” Kate Johnson lived from 1860 to 1919 and spent 30 years as a missionary in Japan. One gravestone read, “Aged 84 years and 3 days.” Another gave the years, months and days. What compelled them to give us such detail about the length of someone’s life?
Of course there were mothers and fathers who lived to see three or four or all of their children die. There were stones which read only, “Baby.” Apparently, Max Healey had some interest in flying. Over in a corner by Crooked Creek was a gravestone that stood out among the winter gray as a spot of color. There were two headstones here, for a husband and wife. They were mulched and decorated, and on the bench next to them sat a little Christmas tree that obviously worked by motion detection and started singing Jingle Bells when we walked by. Wherever those folks are, they must be feeling very loved.
There are gravestones shaped as tree trunks and gravestones that look like reclining couches. There’s a large open space in the middle of the cemetery with a huge round tree and not much else. There are gravestones that have been so worn away by the years of rain and snow and wind as to be illegible.
To stand above the bones and think that these people were once alive like you, with their own fears and hopes, emotions and dreams, is almost too much. There are so many. And what can you make of that? That someday, perhaps, someone will stand above your own bones and for one second try to imagine your life based on the few words and dates carved into a piece of stone. Well, it’s too much for the first day of holiday break, that’s for sure.