Thursday, August 27, 2009

Monument Design - Welsh Pavilion


Although earlier in the course I stated that I despised the “personal tributes to self” that some people chose to commemorate their life (the Dexter’s, etcetera), but it occurred to me that a monument or gravestone is just that--a tribute to self, rather, a tribute to one’s family. To that end, I created a modern work of architectural wonder to express what my family’s life means to me.

Behold Welsh Pavilion.

I incorporated many themes and ideas that I found appealing during my tenure at Spring Grove Cemetery. The personalization of the interior reflects my family’s interests and values. Many in our family enjoy reading, so I placed built-in bookshelves that are sealed from the elements, but can be opened to enjoy while visiting loved ones. In addition, we all LOVE to take pictures. Slate-bound photo albums while be stored in these shelves, too. The rear portico is meant to be “the memories porch.” While flipping through the photos or enjoying a classic piece of literature, we have a place to relax in peace with scenery unlike any other.

The upper interior, above the bookcases, will house the remains of our family. Sheathed in stainless steel, minimal care will be required to maintain the look of this modern mausoleum. Crypts will hold those who believe in traditional burial, while a cremation alcove will hold whatever urn our family member may desire.

Family is a very important value in the Welsh clan. Although many of us are doing many different things with conflicting schedules, we still find the time to get together and simply talk with each other. This mausoleum reflects those values so that we may extend them beyond this life. Clearly this is not the typical type of headstone, but it captures the essence of what Spring Grove Cemetery has taught me about what it is to live and what it means to die and be remembered.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Final Reflection - The Cemetery

Eight weeks. Yes, eight weeks is the time it took me to comprehend what and why is a cemetery. Spring Grove Cemetery was the proving ground for such a revelation and, although skeptical at first, I have come to enlighten my feelings on what it is to die and what it means to be a cemetery. It is more than a storage place for the dead. Be it in a wall, in the ground, or in an urn, a cemetery is more than an area of final resting. A cemetery is our history. A cemetery holds time. A cemetery summarizes our lives and embodies the definition of an American, of humankind.

To understand who we are, where we have come from, and to find some guiding principle for the direction of our life, we must understand our history, our family. A cemetery is our history. I appreciate the notion that a textbook can be history, but only in a cemetery is one able to physically envelope herself in tangible, happened history. Each gravestone provides intelligible clues to our past. We can read what it is our ancestors believed in, what their character personified, and, shallowly, how much they were worth! We, too, see the trends of history as time has passed. Prospering works of theoretical genius and blunders of entrepreneurial spirit can be found in the cemetery. It gives us a “textbook’s” wealth of information about our history, quite literally, carved from stone. All it takes is a little time to uncover.

Think about time in a cemetery. The only method of keeping time is evident on the markers adorning the deceased. Time has no meaning in a cemetery; cemeteries hold time. Nothing changes here, with the exception of a maturing tree or the addition of a burial site. It is important that the ticking of a clock have no sound, no essence in the cemetery because that is how we want it to be. We want it to preserve, to embalm the memories of our history, of our families. No matter how old we may become or what deadline we must meet, when we visit the cemetery, the practicality of time slows, comes to a stop, then rewinds to that point which we recall the happiness of our past, of our beloved. The absence of time, the lack of temporal movement places a value on the cemetery that one may not fully understand, but no less feels its purpose and distinction. Our nature is sometimes to willingly accept ideas with simply a conceptual understanding. The treatment of our dead, in theory, is no different.

Americans, humans, more generally, cherish their dead. We safeguard our departed in a casket, in a vase, in a…filing cabinet, so to speak. To value life, to place meaning on each soul that roams this planet, we charge ourselves with the unbridled care of the physical body that represents such soulful life. We know that our bodies do not leave this earthly place, but we trust that our conscience moves on to another realm. Some sphere that is eternal and peaceful, the cemetery provides that intermediate space, that medium by which to exchange this life for the next. Humans believe so whole-heartedly in such a place that we have attempted (and succeeded, I think) to remove the gloom, the haze from death and dying. Cemeteries have become a place of natural beauty, skillfully mastered works of botanical art. Spring Grove is such an example, an example of the willing acceptance and splendor of passage into death and the next being. Moreover, a celebration of the person’s life rather than the person’s death is what a cemetery is, what it provokes.

Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum is the epitome of what a modern and a historic cemetery should be. It has broadened my view, sparked my indulgence, and challenged my beliefs on what a burial ground truly is and, more precisely, why it is. Words can sometimes be difficult in use to frame an explanation of what something is. Perhaps there are no words for some things. Maybe it is purely a visual stimulant, a melodic tone of symphonic delight, an engulfing smell of a sumptuous plant, the touch of warmth from a new day’s son, or a pleasurable savor across the palate of our mouth. Even so, I must choose some words today. Words so uncomplicated, but deep, more experience rather than definition. The cemetery is times gone by. The cemetery is a marvelous manipulator of occasion, of moments in time. The cemetery relishes memories and is, by very implication, the fundamental nature of life, death, and humanity.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Critical Book Review

After devouring the novel by Peter S. Beagle titled A Fine and Private Place, I had developed rather mixed emotions about the book. It paralleled many of the themes that we have been exploring over the course of our time at Spring Grove Cemetery, but I felt as though the story was rushed. That is, the overall exposition is a little fast, perhaps showing the impatience of a young man to get to the meat of the story (Beagle was 19 when he wrote the novel). However, after learning more about the author himself and being asked to think more critically about A Fine and Private Place, I have discovered varying themes and social concerns along with a great deal of intricacy in how the characters interact with one another.

The story unfolds in a Bronx cemetery where the newly arrived dead quickly lose all sense of themselves as individual people by forgetting the sensations and impressions that composed their lives. As one would infer, the dead cannot leave the place of their buried body or make any physical impact on the world of the living. This is where we find Jonathan Rebeck, our protagonist. He makes it apparent that it is possible to be both physically alive and dead at the same time. On the other hand, Michael and Laura, who are newcomers to Yorkchester Cemetery, are able to remain somewhat alive by constantly reminding themselves of their past experiences and sensations. One can surmise that maintaining an identity and being alive are analogous. We must actively pursue a sense of self to prove we are alive and to be alive is to have proved or established a sense of self. In addition, this shows that an act of will is necessary to propagate life and such will clearly distinguishes it from death.

Beagle suggests that whether or not a character wills to engage in the constant effort of awareness required to maintain life and identity depends on the presence of love. For example, Laura embodied death because she felt that no one truly cared about her and Michael committed suicide because his marriage was failing. However, once these two ghosts developed a passionate longing and love for each other, then they find the incentive to hold onto their identities and inimitable existences by sharing their remembered sensations. In addition, Mr. Rebeck wills the action to leave the cemetery and reenter the realm of the living after 19 years because of his developing love for Mrs. Klapper.

Mr. Rebeck, Mrs. Klapper, Laura, and Michael are the four primary characters in the novel and Beagle places them as equals, as balances for one another versus functioning as separate entities. In so each character seeks to compliment the other three. It appears that Laura and Mr. Rebeck are parallels, as Laura only wants to sleep underground and fade away and Mr. Rebeck has abandoned life to live in a cemetery among the dead. They both have rejected life. Conversely, Michael vests all of his time as a ghost into remembering the past, remembering the sensations to hang on to life. Michael attempts to motivate Laura to do much the same as Mrs. Klapper’s character implies the same with Mr. Rebeck, but in his case to leave the cemetery. It gives the impression that Mrs. Klapper and Michael are both lovers who are attempting to bring life to the dead, and Mr. Rebeck and Laura are the beloved who receive it.

Beagle has attempted a novel expressing life after death, and life during death, and life instead of death using love as the ultimate vehicle to deliver his message. After thinking more decisively about the text and removing my initial dislike for the piece, I have come to respect A Fine and Private Place as a marvelous work of magical realism. The themes and characters are intertwined to reveal a complex notion of valuing everyday life and not to take it for granted. Moreover, it has been a true compliment to our analysis of Spring Grove and the nature of cemeteries.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Journal Entry - Week 8 - Dr. John Tallmadge/A Book Discussion

Okay, so I will admit that the book A Fine and Private Place truly was not as outrageous as I first thought. After talking it over with my classmates tonight, I feel as though I have a much better understanding of what the novel is and how it should be read. Perhaps the key to understanding is group conversation. Dr. Tallmadge, although he did not read the text, provided some useful insight based on simply what we were discussing and relating it to our themes at Spring Grove. However, the question still looms, what is a cemetery? From Peter S. Beagle’s point of view, it is a place to escape from reality, the final destination, a cultivator of love.

I truly wish we could have walked around some more tonight. Although it was a warm evening, the humidity was much less dreadful than usual. I drove to class tonight via the Gray Road entrance. I did not take any route in particular, that is, a white, yellow, or green line, rather just followed whatever made sense. The idea was to see things I have not yet discovered. Ironically enough, I found my way to the front of the cemetery much easier than I would have suspected. Maybe this just goes to show that there is a natural flow, an unconscious plan after all. I still envision Spring Grove as a private garden, a veritable Eden in the vastness of a commercialized, industrial metropolis. Walled and gated in, Spring Grove is one of the few places in the city where one can honestly hideaway and feel enlightened by the surroundings of a truly different place. Although a cemetery, it has become one of my favorite places to come and think, read, eat, and, of course, study.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Journal Entry - Week 7 - The Future of Cemeteries

I felt as though today stood out more than most here at Spring Grove. I say this because when we took a tour of the massive mausoleum complex, I could not help but think about the future of cemeteries. It is common knowledge that Spring Grove sprung up due to the precious real estate needed for development in the inner city, but what is to happen when the area that surrounds Spring Grove becomes much too valuable for “storage of the dead”? I think that this mausoleum tells the tale of that future. Simply witnessing the large number of bodies and memories contained in such a relatively small space gives proof to the future of our beloved past.

As much as no one would like to admit it, economics is the fundamental driving force in everyone’s life. Economics is influencing Spring Grove in such a way. Although they have many hundreds of acres left for traditional burial, the directors have come to realize that, to secure their future, alternatives must be developed. Moreover, it appears that many people, whether or not they realize it, are accepting this inevitability by accommodating the sterile environment of a mausoleum.

In addition, what is more of cemeteries in general? What is it that truly sends us to this ultimate resting place? Why do we seal off our bodies and place them in the earth or in a wall? I am afraid to report I cannot come to a tangible conclusion. I feel as though it would be necessary to experience other cultures and how they deal with their dead to fully understand the nature of American death rituals. Religion is a key figure in the disposal of our dead. We often have elaborate masses to culminate the life of our deceased and many individual levels of mourning that general follow for some time. On the other hand, many people consider the passing of people as a “wake,” or time when their life ends here on Earth and continues in another realm. Personally, I know that when I pass on to whatever comes next, I want it to be a celebration and a joyous time looking at what my life was. At length, I hope that by the time my tenure is up here at this particular cemetery, I will gain an overall sagacity of the dead and dying, and what is means to our culture; why we bury or entomb our dead.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Journal Entry - Week 6 - Further Exploration

Today, we took quite the walk. It was very enjoyable as this was one of the reasons why I took the class—great scenery and exercise! Walking about the grounds is clearly the best way to understand and physically digest the cemetery. Our first stop was the famous Dexter chapel and mausoleum complex. Once I moved beyond its massive appeal and intricacy, I had to ask myself, “Why would they choose this as their way of acknowledging their life?” The name “Dexter” is not of any importance to my personal knowledge today, so one must ask how they amassed such a fortune. Well, like many others here, the development of alcoholic beverages (primarily beer) was their means of income. Like I tried to point out several times throughout this multi-week journey, what is this telling us about our culture? That is, the more prominent legacies of people at Spring Grove are centered on some of the very things that, if not consumed responsibly, will do more harm than good. So then I ponder, should they have honestly said (rather implied) in building such monstrosities, “Hey! Look at me and remember what I did during my life! And if you follow my example, you can have a massive, multifaceted, memory to your name, too! Drink up!” My answer would be a resounding “no”. Oops! I seemed to have rambled off on a tangent about morality and ethics. Okay, back to the topic at hand.

Continuing our roam through the grounds, we came across many “Kodak” moments and very eccentric monuments and markers. When we moved in on the Sphinx, I was actually a bit disappointed. I thought it would be somewhat grander than it was. Nevertheless, it is still a hidden jewel of Spring Grove. I do hope we have the opportunity to go on more extensive walks in the remaining weeks of the term. I find that my more novel and creative thoughts are provoked by the sensual contact of the query at hand. In addition, I LOVE taking pictures!