R E S T I N G P L A C E . C O M
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything
in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord
Your God, am a jealous God.
My name is Rick Bakos, and I am a cemetery junkie. It is an obsession that nearly cost me my life and my soul.
My obsession was an outgrowth of genealogy. As a middle-aged bachelor with no progeny of my own in which to boast, I turned my eyes backwards toward my ancestors, a motley crew of saints and sinners that made me the man I am today. 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 generously with me. Their children, also my cousins, usually had no idea who I was.
Perhaps because of all of the funerals I attended, I developed a desire to visit the graves of all of my ancestors. On both business trips and vacations, I would find myself tramping through 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 upon their weathered monuments. I could not get over the fact that they were all once just like me. They lived. They loved. They fought. They laughed. They worked. Then they died. Nevertheless, part of them remained: Me. Did they imagine when they bought their little oblong plots of land 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 do we just disappear into nothingness. That was the truly scary thought.
How many people in this world truly achieve fame that would outlive them? None of my ancestors, that’s for sure. They were just drones: the worker bees. They lived in little houses and toiled endlessly at jobs to fulfill the dreams of men who the world would consider greater and more important than them. In the end, what did my ancestors have to show for their labors, aside from generations of progeny they would never know and who would never know them? A tombstone. That’s it. A slab of granite or marble with their names etched into it. In theory, those stones could last for centuries. The elements were already erasing their names on some of the marble and limestone markers, but the granite ones remained pristine. They could conceivably last for thousands of years, far longer than the once living bones buried beneath them.
That was encouraging. Many of my ancestors managed to buy themselves a small slab of immortality, but what did it really say about them? Occasionally, my relatives had a short poem or Bible verse inscribed into their monuments. That, I suppose, was reflective of their personalities, or at least the personality of the loved one who bought the stone. However, the markers mainly recorded just their names and the dates of their birth and death. I hated seeing these people, whom I had painstakingly researched over the years, reduced to a mere string of facts. A person is more than a 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 wanted the world to see them. Over the years, I gathered an impressive collection of photographs of my relatives from various distant cousins around the country. I was particularly proud of the tintypes of my third great-grandparents I had rescued from a distant cousin’s musty old cedar chest. It was amazing to see traces of myself in the faces of people who died over a hundred and fifty years earlier.
Fortunately, I found the perfect place to build monuments to my family. A website called RestingPlace.com. It is a vast online database of millions of graves slowly compiled by thousands of volunteer contributors around the world. When I found the website, I began building online memorials to all of my relatives. I included pictures of them and their families as well as photographs of their graves. I even included biographical sketches of the people and linked them all together. A person could easily click through my entire family tree person by person. Now they were no longer simply names and dates carved in stone. You could look in their eyes and get a sense of their identity. Sometimes their soul, if that is the right word, shone through the computer screen.
In my own way, I believed I was granting my family cyber-immortality, which was probably the only actual form available. I wish I could bring myself to believe in some sort of spiritual continuance, but I could not 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’s death, my mother took us out of the Catholic school and dropped us in the public school system. I don’t know if that was a sign of her rejecting the cruel God who prematurely took away her loving husband or whether it was a simple matter of economics. However, even as a child, I noticed that she went to church much more infrequently. Afterwards she only went to church for weddings and funerals and occasionally Christmas when she was feeling particularly sentimental. Still, my mother did not reject all spirituality. If anything, she became even more superstitious. She was always seeing signs and omens and became obsessed with various charlatans and fortunetellers who played her like a violin.
Like my mother, my beliefs 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 that there was a limit to current human knowledge and understanding. I was willing to concede that some entity that 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 probably just blinked out of existence. That thought fired my resolve concerning RestingPlace. I would provide the human race what little measure of immortality I could muster.
I became so obsessed with the website that I began documenting the graves of strangers when I ran out of my own relatives. I started with a small Methodist cemetery a few blocks away from my home. One sunny Saturday afternoon I walked through the cemetery 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 uncovered.
I’m sure this hobby of mine sounds as dull as dishwater to you, but it came very naturally to me. When I was not traipsing around cemeteries, I worked as an accountant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. My primary responsibility consisted of checking the various inventories throughout the hospital: counting all the essential implements of modern medicine you would die without. The doctors and nurses get the glory. I get the clipboard. By the time I finished my rounds, it was time to start walking those corridors again. At least I managed to get 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 was a stethoscope 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 of their loved ones’ graves. I would drive to the cemetery and get the location of the grave from the office. Sometimes the cemetery had no record of the person in question. In that case, I would send the person who submitted the request an email saying so. If I found their loved one, I would photograph the grave and upload the picture to the website for them. I did that fifty-two times before that fateful Saturday afternoon in June.
I got up late that morning, around eleven. Usually, I didn’t allow myself that indulgence, but I was out late the previous night. The weekly Friday Night Swing Dance at the American Legion Hall represented my last vain hope of actually meeting a woman in the flesh. I mainly dated via the Internet and it tended to be unsatisfying. The women disappointed me because they never seemed to be who they said they were, and I disappointed them by being precisely who I said I was. At least at the dances I could hold a woman for a few minutes. The atmosphere was very friendly. Anyone could ask anyone to dance, and everyone always said yes. It was that kind of place.
Some of the ladies seemed interested in me. Straight, unmarried men in my age group, unencumbered by crippling child support payments, are apparently very rare. I was very tempted to ask out two or three of the women, but I could never pull the trigger. I was afraid if I asked one of them out and it went badly that word would burn through the place that I was a loser. It was safer to keep my options open for the time being.
After completing my morning grooming rituals, I had a light breakfast at my computer. I went to the webpage of the Baltimore Sunpapers to check the death notices. Genealogy was an ongoing endeavor for me. I checked every day for my cousins. Fortunately, the greater Bakos family appeared unscathed. Then I started making memorials for the rest of the deceased on Resting Place. I was lucky today. Another local contributor, who called herself Tombstone Teri, also combed through the local death notices. If I started too late in the morning, she would memorialize the dead before me. I did not know if she considered me a rival, but I certainly viewed her as one. Tombstone Teri was racking up some very impressive numbers. I posted about sixteen thousand memorials over the past four years. She was only a member for two years and was already up to nearly fifteen thousand memorials. I could not let down my guard for a second.
While memorializing one of the recently deceased at Eternal Faith cemetery, I noticed a new photo request. I paused. The cemetery sat about five miles from my home. It would be simple to go over and get the picture, but I always approached the place with a heavy heart. Eternal Faith Memorial Gardens was slated to be my own final resting place. My father, Stan Bakos, bought six plots and joked that we could have them on a first come first serve basis. The joke was on him. He snagged the first one himself a short year or two later when I was nine-years-old. My older brother Lenny got the next one. My mother Alice followed him. Only my sister Janet and I remained on this side of the grass, and it looked like we were going to leave an empty plot unless one of us got married.
Something told me not to go to the cemetery, but fulfilling that request was a matter of pride. Tombstone Teri put up some good numbers but she was lazy. She generated most of her memorials from Internet newspaper death notices and funeral home listings. Her fieldwork was weak. According to her profile, she only fulfilled three photo requests. I had fulfilled forty-nine more than her. I could not resist making it an even fifty.
Click here for Chapter Two.
Copyright 2016 by Sean Paul Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Be sure to read my memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.