Beyond the Grave by George Merrill


Out of my studio window I can see the upper reaches of Broad Creek. It’s a wide shallow. At the ebb during extremely low water, I can see the jetsam that the flood waters normally hide like rotted tree limbs, cans, shotgun shells and plastic bottles. I saw a mound in the shallows the other day. It was a deer, a dead buck. I don’t know how he died.

During low tides buzzards descend on the deer to feed. One day an eagle, circling above spooked the buzzards. The buzzards vacated their seats at the feast deferring to the intimidating presence of the eagle. They returned for a later sitting.

Such scenes are common in the natural world. However, they can be disturbing to watch. Birth, death, transformation and rebirth is nature’s way. Nature, however, is unceremonious and perfunctory about the whole business. Strictly no frills. We on the other hand are very ritualistic about death, and over the years have devised all kinds of ceremonies and rites to commemorate the event.

We’ve been burying our dead for one hundred thousand years. Exactly why, is not certain.

I conducted funerals as a young clergyman. The services from the old Book of Common Prayer were typical of many funerals; solemn, sober, dignified, accompanied by melodic hymns and traditional classical music. Sometimes these funerals were regarded as inordinately depressing, funereal as some put it. During Christian funerals, the resurrection was proclaimed but I’m sure at such moments only a few were in the mood to believe it.

Our treatment of death is changing, partly because greater longevity has provided many of us much more time to consider it. Today, more people actively plan for death, beyond just tending to wills and estate issues.

We once went to funerals. Today we are more likely to attend ‘Celebrations of Life;’ rites of passage with a very different tone than those of yesterday. They are geared more to commemorate the life of the deceased than to make a statement of faith although sometimes both occur. Eulogies, although they are meant to be kind, we know are not always representative of the deceased. True or false, they remain an important part of the ritual.

A significant number of my ancestral family on my mother’s side are interred at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s located on the highest point in Brooklyn, with gorgeous trees and gaudy, imposing mausoleums, along with gothic masterpieces that attest to the wealth and prestige of old New York. It’s also a commentary on the ironies of human pride, our need to make a statement that survives us beyond the grave.

In the same cemetery as my grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and uncles are interred, also rest luminaries like Pierre Lorillard IV, the tobacco giant; Henry Steinway of piano fame and Samuel Morse, of “What hath God wrought?” renown. Horace Greeley, newspaper tycoon is also buried there among many other famous historical names

Founded in 1838, Green-Wood is traditionally non-sectarian but was generally considered a Christian burial place for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of “good repute.” Undesirables (?) and criminals, at least in principle, were denied plots. I’m assuming my ancestral family members were of good repute. Even if they weren’t, or were undesirables for that matter, given the cemetery’s unusual history and arbitrary admission practices they still may well have secured eternal rest there.

On closer examination, not everyone resting in Green-Wood’s bosom were exactly choir boys or girls during their earthly sojourns.

Fanny White, a fallen woman is a remarkable resident of Green-Wood. She was one of the most successful madams ever to run a high-end brothel in New York City. Believed to have been sexually abused as a child, she not only survived, she triumphed. She took great pride in her entrepreneurial skills. She hosted an especially discriminating clientele, name dropping her clients – not by name but by profession – “merchants, Congressmen, and many belonging to the Diplomatic Corps residing in New York.” She was entertained by New York’s finest. At the time of her death she was loaded and owned fashionable Town Houses all over the city.

“Boss Tweed” the nefarious leader of Tammany Hall that once steeped the democrats of New York in graft and corruption, rests undisturbed at Green-Wood. Just why is unclear since he was hardly of good repute and in fact had criminal charges against him, which should have automatically precluded him a plot at Green-Wood. I guess being a democrat in those days opened more doors than it does today.

Joey Gallo, professional mobster or Albert Anastasia, the renowned contract killer for ‘Murder Incorporated’ are also interred at Green-Wood. They either made Green-Wood an offer they couldn’t refuse or perhaps being Christian or just Catholic was sufficient to gain them admission. Who knows?

I remember three distinct visits to Green-Wood. The first was in nineteen forty-eight, when my grandfather was buried next to his parents. There was a marker designating a mysterious infant named Hattie. I was never sure who she was except from a funeral card I discovered in a family bible. Its poem indicated that her death was heartrending. I was not that close to my grandfather but the grandeur of Green-Wood’s mausoleums and the lush landscape awed me. At the time it seemed magical, a wonderland of antiquity.

The next time I visited was early in the fifties when my grandmother was buried. That’s a painful memory. I loved her a lot. The day we buried her was cold and wet with a misty rain. I felt totally desolate as I watched the coffin lowered into the earth. It seemed as if we were abandoning her. Green-Wood did not seem grand that day. It was dark and ominous, filled with the pain of loss.

I made my last visit in the seventies. I went with a friend who had an interest in its history. I wanted to photograph the family gravesite which I did, including the site where the mysterious child ‘Hattie” was interred.

The trip was a sentimental journey, the kind inspired by nostalgia. I viewed Green-Wood with more detachment that day. The majesty of the landscape was the same. I grew curious about just who these people really were who have now returned to dust. I wondered how, if they could speak to me, what might they tell me about who they were; they could tell me stories of the New York that once existed, that has since died, been transformed and is being reborn in a new world.

Speaking of transformations, I read only this week that for the next twenty-five years, visitors to Green-Wood will be able to write down their most intimate secrets and bury them in a special grave designed by an artist. The cemetery will also be hosting moonlight tours, cocktail parties, dance performances and yoga classes.

My grandfather was a staunch Baptist, eschewed alcohol and I suspect disapproved of dancing. When he went to his rest at Green-Wood, the world was a very different place.

I’m glad he did not live to see his resting place, swinging.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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