Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Monumentum in memoriam: Memento mori.

The recent sad losses of writer David Foster Wallace, musician Rick Wright, and the retirement funds of most of the staff have gotten us thinking about mortality here at WB, and so....

The latest trend in dying is all-natural burial in an eco-friendly grave: no coffin, no embalming fluids, just a decomposing cadaver contributing organic compounds to the earth a few feet underground. Unlike traditional cemeteries where sealed coffins rest in concrete vaults spaced comfortably apart from the other vaults around them, a "green" burial ground is recyclable; when one corpse has been completely consumed by bugs and bacteria, another can take its place in the same spot.

For those who are unwilling to let themselves rot naturally, a fashionable and tasteful burial will most often take place in a "memorial park," where landscapes are uncluttered by unsightly headstones or monuments of varying heft and quality. Every gravesite gets the same size and kind of inconspicuous identifying plaque laid flat into the ground, leaving a tidy horizon of contemplative tranquility (and easy mowing).

But we're here to celebrate a different form of final rest: the bygone age of tacky, gaudy, creepy, and totally stylin' grave markers that said a little about the dead and a lot about the living who commissioned the monuments. The "gravestones and markers" sessions at the annual Popular Culture Association conference are always among the most heavily attended (along with sessions about animation, where they show cartoons), and having recently visited a forgotten cemetery dating back to the late 1700s, now we know why.

Minnie May was just 18 years old when she died in 1881. Her gravestone is designed to look like an orderly pile of rocks around a tree that has been cut down, leaving only a stately trunk with stubs where its branches would have been. This one is pure poetry, and it definitely wins best-in-show of the entire collection.

"Our Darling" didn't live long enough to receive a name in 1877, but she was clearly loved by a family of means. Her marker shows, in miniature, the child she would have become, sleeping in repose and guarded by a life-sized mourning angel. It's an impressive showing...

... but "Our Baby," who lived for only three days in 1896, belonged to a clearly more affluent family. This unnamed infant received a hulking, eight-foot tall tribute of granite to mark those three days. The polished orb at the top of the marker, held up by ornate neo-classical pillars, might represent the unnamed infant belonging to the universe now... or just the enormity of the family's wealth.

Augustus Button, who died in 1872 at the age of 67, was obviously a man of style, distinction, and good humor — his name is carved in the shape of a button. WB would like to have met this man, or at least his family, to get some ideas for logo design for the blog during some future site renovation.

Julius Krausa received a classic "good servant of the Word" treatment when he died in 1869, with a cross bearing the inscription IHS and a lengthy passage of scripture, translated into Latin, carved into the base of his stone and swallowed up by the ground around it before its source can be read.

One of the few residents of this cemetery to rest under a still-surviving tree, Mr. Krausa's inscriptions were carved deeply enough to still be easily legible, unlike the hundreds of cheaper stones around his that are essentially blank now, their owners lost to history after only a couple of centuries of wind and rain. And ultimately, no matter how big, heavy, tall, or costly a monument to our former existence is, that's how we all end up: erased by nature, just as the History Channel was happy to remind us in its early 2008 disaster-science future documentary, Life After People.

Unless we happen to be one of the four Immortals carved into Mount Rushmore, it makes no difference if we're memorialized by slabs of granite or just tossed into a plain old hole in the ground: we will all disappear. Still, as the poem says: Because we know the end will come, that's what makes the living fun. That'll be the official WB epitaph—but they'll have to tattoo it onto our foreheads, because when we go, we're going green.

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