Another sample chapter of my novel Chapel Street. Keep checking back for more!
I am a cemetery junkie.
My obsession was an outgrowth of genealogy. As a bachelor with no children of my own, I turned my eyes backwards toward my ancestors. I traced all of my familial lines back at least a couple of centuries. In the process, I talked to hundreds of cousins while compiling my extensive family tree. They tended to be elderly women happy to share the stories that their own children and grandchildren had grown bored of hearing. As the years passed, I found myself attending their funerals out of gratitude for the stories and photos they shared with me.
Perhaps because of all of the funerals I attended, I developed a desire to visit the graves of all of my ancestors. I would visit the overgrown cemeteries, thorns and stickers tearing at my khaki pants and tennis shoes. I often felt an acute, practically supernatural, sense of connection to my kin as I stood upon their graves looking down at their weathered monuments. I knew they were all once just like me. They lived. They loved. They fought. They laughed. They worked. Then they died. But part of them remained: Me. Did they imagine when they bought their little oblong plots that a hundred and twenty years later a great-great-great grandson would stand above them in respect? Were they looking down at me from heaven? Or up from hell? Was there even a heaven or hell? Or did we, as I suspected, just disappear into nothingness? It was maddening to think we lived in vain.
How many people in this world truly achieve a legacy that would outlive them? None of my ancestors, that’s for sure. They were just worker bees, living in little houses and toiling endlessly at jobs to fulfill the dreams of men who the world considered greater and more important than they. What did they have to show for their labors in the end, aside from generations of progeny they would never know and who would never know them? A tombstone. That was it. A slab of granite or marble with their names etched into it.
In theory, those stones could last for centuries, far longer than the once living bones beneath them. That was encouraging, but what did it really say about them? Occasionally, a short poem or Bible verse had been inscribed into the cold stone. That was better than nothing. Most of their markers only recorded their names and the dates of their birth and death. I hated seeing my ancestors, whom I had painstakingly researched over the years, reduced to a mere string of facts. A human being is more than the sum of their name and dates. I wanted the world to get a taste of their individual humanity: their personalities, their struggles, and even their small triumphs, as insignificant as they might have been in the overall scheme of human history.
I found the perfect place to honor my family at RestingPlace.com, a vast online database of millions of graves slowly compiled by thousands of volunteers around the world. I began building online memorials to all of my relatives. I wrote short biographies of them and included plenty of photographs. The website even allowed me to link them all together by familial relationship. A person could easily click through my entire family tree person by person. Now my ancestors were no longer simply names and dates carved in stone. You could look into their eyes and get a sense of their identity.
In my own way, I granted my family cyber-immortality, which was probably the only actual form available. I couldn’t bring myself to accept any sort of spiritual continuance, despite my nominally religious background. My parents were both Catholics. They were not necessarily weekly churchgoers, but they took their faith seriously enough to send my brother Lenny and me to St. Dominic Elementary School.
After my father Stan’s death in an automobile accident, my mother took us out of the Catholic school and unceremoniously dropped us in the Baltimore City public school system. It was probably an economic decision, but I suspect it was also her way of rejecting the cruel God who prematurely stole away her loving husband. She attended church much less frequently as the years passed. In the end, she only went for weddings and funerals and the occasional Christmas when she was feeling sentimental. Still, my mother did not reject all spirituality. She believed in signs and omens and became obsessed with charlatans and fortunetellers who played her like a violin.
My religious beliefs also changed with the death of my father. I stopped believing in a loving God who took a personal interest in the lives of his people. It wasn’t until college that I pretty much closed the door on the very concept of God itself. I wasn’t an atheist. Atheism was too intellectually arrogant for me. I accepted a limit to human knowledge. I could concede that an entity we could define as God could possibly exist somewhere in some unknown dimension. However, for all practical purposes, I believed we human beings were on our own. When we died, we just blinked out of existence. That reality fired my resolve concerning Resting Place. In the absence of God, I would provide the human race what little measure of immortality I could muster.
I began documenting the graves of strangers when I ran out of my own relatives, starting with a small Methodist cemetery a few blocks away from my apartment. One sunny Saturday afternoon I walked through it and photographed every tombstone. I spent the rest of the weekend uploading the photos and documenting the graves on the website. Whenever I came upon a name I found particularly interesting, I would research the individual on various genealogical websites and include the information I found.
I found it a very rewarding hobby, much more interesting than my day job as an accountant at Johns Hopkins Hospital. My primary responsibility consisted of checking physical inventories throughout the hospital: counting all the essential implements of modern medicine. The doctors and nurses got the glory. I got the clipboard. By the time I finished my rounds, it was time to start walking those same corridors again. At least I got some fresh air when I documented the graves, and people really appreciated my genealogical efforts. Every week I got emails from happy people thanking me for finding the graves of their relatives. No doctor ever thanked me for making sure there were rubber gloves nearby when he needed one. No patient did either for that matter.
I also made it a habit to fulfill photo requests that people submitted to the website. I would drive out to the cemetery and get the location of the requested grave from the office. Sometimes the cemetery had no record of the loved one in question. In that case, I would send the submitter an email saying so. If I found their loved one, I would photograph the grave and upload the picture to the website for them. They were generally very grateful. In a world defined by death and sorrow, it felt great to do something nice for strangers.
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 - RestingPlace.com
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 - RestingPlace.com
While you're waiting for the next chapter of Chapel Street, feel free to read my memoir: