Once I visited Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, N.Y., with Robert V. Wells, a history professor at Union College and author of Facing the`King of Terrors’: Death and Society in an American Community, as my tour guide. Vale is in the heart of the city, surrounded by houses, shops and gas stations, but cemeteries are quiet places, conducive to contemplation. Vale is good for bird watching. At sunrise one December I watched a Cooper’s hawk gliding over the snow-topped gravestones, hardly moving his wings. Charles Steinmetz is buried there, and Charles Lewis, who witnessed Lincoln’s assassination. Wells pointed out the Italian, General Electric Co. and influenza neighborhoods, all demarcated and plotted like plats on graph paper. Even in death we choose order, and I understood why Wells never tired of studying the demographics of death.
I remembered Vale while rereading Joseph Addison’s Spectator essay from March 30, 1711, recounting his visit to Westminster Abbey. His opening is personal and moving:
“When I am in a serious humour, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey, where the gloominess of the place, and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable.”
The tone and sentiment recall the first sentence of Joseph Mitchell’s “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The Bottom of the Harbor, 1961), a piece about an old black community, Sandy Ground, discovered by Mitchell on Staten Island:
“When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.”
Rationalists will accuse Wells, Addison, Mitchell and me of morbidity, but what could be healthier than finding some measure of serenity in the company of death? Our ancestors knew it. Our Victorian forebears had picnics in cemeteries. A memento mori ought to be humbling, a reminder of death’s democracy. Addison concludes:
“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”
Addison died eight years later and is buried in Westminster Abbey.