[This essay is from a discussion post for one of my classes.]
This cemetery is definitely an area I “don’t experience much.” I have been to cemeteries before, both for the usual reasons and for curiosity reasons. I visited this cemetery for the first time this summer in a spontaneous Pokemon Go outing with my son. Afterwards I visited by car about 6-8 times. I never got out on foot until this assignment. What happened as I read the place? Put simply, I tried to make sense of this place using what I know.
In the first visits with my son, I saw the cemetery less as a place where people were buried and more as a strange location for participating in this new game of Pokemon Go. Everything in the real world was relative to what was offered in the Pokemon Go map. There were Pokestops (Fig. 2 & 3, places to find items necessary for the game) at several places in the cemetery, including two at the entrance. There was a gym for battling (Fig 4) just inside the southern boundary of the cemetery, and there were wild Pokemon to catch in and near the cemetery. Most interesting to me is how the Pokemon Go app built interaction with the physical site. The physical landmarks that had game connections were marked on the game app with map symbols, real world photos of the landmarks and text descriptions (See first set of images below).
Visiting on foot was a different experience. In the prior visit, my knowledge of the place was constructed through the game. On foot, I did the reading and analysis of a surprisingly complex text of place. The more I read, the less sure I was of my analysis.
First, there are the things that one expects—tombstones of various shapes and age, silk flowers of various colors and conditions, a fairly well-kept lawn over and around the graves, a fairly well-kept road through and around the cemetery, cemetery section area markers, occasional trees, and a few stone benches. These could be seen from the car and fit with my conceptions of cemetery spaces.
On foot, it became apparent that cemeteries are designed to write small stories in small spaces, some obviously connected. Some function intertextually, sharing borders and/or contrasting with nearby spaces. All plots that had headstones had some version of the expected information—name(s) and date(s) of birth and death.
Just looking at the headstones, I noticed a trend in increased information. Oldest headstones had the basic information, perhaps including military service text and an epitaph. More recent headstones included etched art often related to the deceased, photos of the deceased, large quotes or prayers/messages for or about the deceased. The older headstones were made of white granite. Newer headstones were made of the same material, rose-colored granite, and increasingly, black granite. In looking at the oldest headstones, how weathered and difficult to read they were, the use of polished black granite with contrasting white etched lettering suggested a desire to preserve readability. The use of more visible, durable materials and the increase in information on the tombstones suggests a desire of the living to preserve the of identities of the deceased.
Immortalizing self in a physical way, in this case in a physical space, is not too surprising. It has been going on as long as humans have existed. However, this kind of immortality requires luck and/or fortune. I am unfamiliar with how much it costs to buy a cemetery plot or a headstone, but I am aware that these are expensive. The larger the plot, the more personal details on the headstone, the more expensive the immortalization. Figures 5-7 are photos of one grave that stood out. The headstone was not larger, which was a trend in the past, but it was more ornate with informational text on both sides, an etched portrait on one side, and German-style font in one text, I believe to emphasize her Germanic heritage (maiden name Yeager). This same plot had a large marble slab over the grave itself in which was inscribed a poem to those left behind.
Even more prestigious, and probably more expensive relative to the time, is the large family grave plot in Figure 9. This plot housed the deceased of two families, including many military members who were lost in World War I and the Korean War periods. The plot is outlined in concrete, as are all plot areas of the cemetery, but the corners of this plot have concentric square marble ornaments embedded in the concrete (Fig 10). The patriarch of one family, whose name is etched into one side of the large arch, was a military physician, suggesting that his post-military work as a doctor possibly funded this plot purchase.
In contrast to these two examples of white privilege is the Baby Land area (Figure 8). These plots are cheaper being of a smaller size than a regular plot. The materials marking each vary, and graves are often marked with hand-placed borders—plastic fencing, wood frames, brick outlines, concrete garden stones as outlines, and smaller headstones. They are decorated with silk flowers but also with toys and child-oriented statuary. I reason that the children are separated from their families in the cemetery because their families do not have plots purchased, because it is cheaper to purchase an infant plot, and because the infants are possibly from migrant families (several were Hispanic).
Finally, I intentionally looked for evidence of segregation in the cemetery. What I found instead was that I did not know enough, even with the information on the tombstones, to determine whether this cemetery was segregated. I did find newer graves with photos of black deceased, with Hispanic names and text in Spanish, and with other ethnic surnames and symbology (Irish surname and Claddagh). For me, the cemetery became spaces within spaces. Stories within stories beside stories that pushed me to look at my own roots and mortality.
“Mental maps are drawn by people’s experience in space and with specific places or locations–experiences that have everything to do with class, race, gender, age, mobility, and sexuality. Identity is constructed in place, via place” (Reynolds 86).
Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Differences. Southern Illinois: UP, 2007.