Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cemeteries: a Celebration of Life

In my first reflection on cemeteries, my initial feelings, ideas, and experiences were solely based upon death. It can certainly be natural for cemeteries to evoke powerful feelings of mourning and sorrow. However, from what I have learned in the past two months of meditative and experiential study is that cemeteries are not just a place to bury the dead. In my experience at Spring Grove cemetery, I’ve learned that a cemetery is alive and full of history, art, nature, and spirituality.

A cemetery is wise and full of history. The stones though cold and stiff in texture, tell stories that are both lively and dynamic. Every gravestone bestows some insight on the presence of a person’s life and the time they’ve spent on this earth. I did not feel this way, however, when I first entered the cemetery. I always felt, that the names and the dates on these stones were sort of like the names and the dates in history class – there are just as many and they’re almost impossible to remember. But through realizing I am an individual, who will eventually fall victim to my own time of death, I’ve truly become more connected to the names and dates on each of the stones. To express this idea without ambiguity, I, like the many buried in Spring Grove cemetery, will at some point have a gravestone with my name etched into the rock, along with my two most essential dates – my date of birth and my date of death. When I die, someone will dig a hole for me and lower my body down in a casket, and the people who knew me well enough will come to watch and mourn this event. As time passes these people will receive their own gravestone to write their names on and, hopefully, they will be buried somewhere close to where I am. Because of this idea I’ve found that I am connected by the graves in the cemetery, through the history of each life lived. Although there are some graves that seem to tell more history than others, for example, the Dexter or the Burnet mausoleum, I’ve found that the real history is the history that the dead take with them - it a history of their lives and the people they’ve touched. Although I have not gained a sixth sense and can now talk to the dead, these past nine weeks have allowed me to feel somewhat connected to the people who came before me and the overall significance they had in life, including the people they’ve touched, the experiences they’ve had, and the hardships they’ve endured. This has given me an overall respect for my life and the history of the names and dates on the stones in Spring Grove cemetery.

A cemetery is also an inspiring work of art. Adolph Strauch was a man who believed a cemetery should look more like a beautiful composition rather than just a motley arrangement of stones. This is why the graves and the mausoleums in Spring Grove cemetery act as sculptures on its grassy, three-dimensional canvass. I felt this picturesque quality of the cemetery made it look less like a graveyard and something more along the lines of a scene inspired by the Garden of Eden. Some of the sculpted gravestones, like the Bragg monument, make the overall cemetery look like a work of art. I feel astonished with the fact that people would take so much time out of their life to make a cemetery look beautiful. It makes me think of all the powerful works of art mankind has created and how much time it must have taken to construct them. I personally have yet to experience looking up at the Sistine Chapel, but I feel Spring Grove offers at least some of that same kind of awe and marvel in its own works. This contributes to the overall idea of the cemetery being a work of art and how truly alive the cemetery is.

A cemetery is also wild and full of nature. Over the course of my experience, I was highly impressed with all of nature Spring Grove cemetery had to offer. The lakes scattered throughout the cemetery make it look serene, but all the flora and greenery that surround these bodies of water make the entire cemetery come alive. The trees in the cemetery grow wild in some parts and the woodland area is thick and kept in its natural state. I felt the champion trees, with their impressively immense trunks, were certainly something that contributed to the natural spirit of the cemetery. Also, the flora brightened cemetery and was everywhere. The fact that most cemeteries, funeral processions, and burials use a lot of flowers made me think that somehow the idea of nature and the cemetery is connected. This leads me to believe that the cemetery is supposed to be reflective of nature and the overall aspect of life.

A cemetery is also meaningful and full of spirituality. Spirituality in the deepest sense of the word has nothing to do with religion. Moreover, it is the human relationship to anything beyond bodily senses, time, and the material world. During my experience, I’ve felt certain characteristics of spirituality and I believe Spring Grove works to support this for everyone who spends time there. One thing I’ve found particularly spiritual about the cemetery is that the sense of time completely escaped me during my visits. Even near the front gate, there are clocks on the buildings without hands, symbolizing that time has no meaning in the cemetery. Also, the fact that the cemetery has no distractions from the outside world leads me to believe that the cemetery is quite spiritual. I did not have to feel any sense of worry or anxiety, but it was rather a place I could just be. I would not describe my experience at Spring Grove cemetery with sense of numbness either, but it just feels like a place to be alive and to focus on life. I find that it is this idea of spirituality that makes the cemetery truly come alive.

During my experience I’ve found that cemeteries are not just a place to bury the dead, but they are a place that is full of life. Although this place can certainly evoke feelings of sadness or sorrow it is also full of history, art, nature, and spirituality, which are elements that seem to indicate that it is bursting with life. Perhaps a cemetery is more alive than the outside world of its society. Overall, I feel that Spring Grove cemetery and the idea of the cemetery in society is a celebration of the human condition and it is made to be enjoyed by the living.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Response to A Fine and Private Place

Existentialism can be defined as the life’s will to discover meaning for itself. It is why societies have cemeteries and people want to make their mark on the earth before they die. This idea can be seen in the characters of Peter S. Beagle’s, A Fine and Private Place. In the novel, there is a man who lives in a cemetery, a widowed wife who lives alone, and two ghosts with unfinished business. As it is a major theme in the novel, each of the characters can be defined by and contribute to the idea of existentialism.
The first character introduced in the novel, Jonathon Rebeck, supports the novel’s theme of existentialism through his struggle to find the meaning of his life. Mr. Rebeck was once a well-known pharmacist in Yorkchester, New York, who later loses his business and most of what he owns. In the result of his despair, Rebeck stumbles upon Yorkchester cemetery and decides to live there as a bum. As the years pass, Mr. Rebeck learns the entire layout of the cemetery and gains pleasure by helping the ghosts. Mr. Rebeck is defined by the idea of existentialism because even after losing everything, the cemetery becomes his meaning in life. This shows his drive to discover meaning despite being held back by society. Also, Mr. Rebeck enjoys helping the ghosts of the cemetery because it makes his life feel more significant. Because of this, Mr. Rebeck is a character in the novel that supports the theme of existentialism. He is also transformed at the end by leaving the cemetery and starting a new life. This signifies his will to make his mark on world and finally feel like a part of it. Overall, Mr. Rebeck is surely a character that contributes to the novel’s theme of existentialism.
Another character that contributes to the novel’s theme of existentialism is the widowed wife, Gertrude Klapper. In the novel, Mrs. Klapper struggles to find meaning after losing her beloved husband, Morris. One day, Mrs. Klapper visits Morris’ grave in Yorkchester cemetery and stumbles upon Mr. Rebeck. After talking to him a great deal, Mrs. Klapper later decides to visit Mr. Rebeck again. After multiple visits, Mrs. Klapper starts to develop a bond with Mr. Rebeck and feels a certain amount of closeness with him as she felt with Morris. There is no doubt that Morris gave Mrs. Klapper’s life meaning and although she loses this after his death, she regains it by caring for Mr. Rebeck. This signifies Mrs. Klapper’s drive towards existentialism because she feels that her life is necessary by acting as a caregiver to Mr. Rebeck like she did with her husband. At the end of the novel this transforms her as she is able to convince Mr. Rebeck to come out of the cemetery and live in the outside world. As a result, she no longer feels alone and unnecessary because she can take care of someone. Mrs. Klapper’s character supplies a significant contribution to the novel’s theme of existentialism.
The two ghosts in the novel, Michael Morgan and Laura Durand, also play an active role in supporting the theme of existentialism. Although they are dead, both have unfinished business from the time they were alive and do not rest until it is settled. Michael never knew what it was like to love, and Laura never felt loved enough. Throughout the novel, Michael and Laura establish a close relationship with each other by having conversations in the cemetery. They each exchange ideas and learn about each other, coming to the conclusion that something was missing while they were alive. They later come to find that it was love that was missing in their lives and this made them both feel empty and meaningless after death. By the end of the novel, they agree to love each other selflessly so that both are able to lay down for their eternal rest. This love between Michael and Laura indicates their will towards existentialism even after death. The love that they did not have in life made them feel unfulfilled so falling in love after death gave their entire life meaning. They are also transformed by this love, as Michael thought he could never love someone and Laura finally feels the full affection of another’s soul. Both Michael and Laura are characters that contribute to the novel’s theme of existentialism.
Each of the characters in A Fine and Private Place contributes to the novel’s theme of existentialism. This allows each of the characters to also become transformed in the cemetery as they drive themselves to discover the meaning of their lives. In many ways, the theme of this novel defines existentialism as intrinsic to the human spirit. Cemeteries are a part of society that maintain this idea, as gravestones are a person’s final mark on the earth. It allows for some resolution that a person lived and made a difference to the world. The theme of existentialism can therefore be seen in life and death and is defined by all the souls that contribute towards discovering the meaning of existence.

My ideal Monument design

My ideal monument is an elegant, medium sized gravestone made out of modest stone material. I modeled the architecture of the stone after Burnet’s mausoleum with plenty of arches on top of the monument and flora design on the corners. I used a lot of iconography on the monument as well. One such icon is an hourglass with angel wings surrounding it. The hourglass is a symbol for time and my own mortality. The wings symbolize that after death I am both free from time and my mortality. Above the hourglass are three small rings devoted to the trinity and my hope that I will be guided into the afterlife. Located on the same side as these symbols near the top of the grave, is an angel in the stance of an archer. The archer symbolizes my soul’s ascension into the heavens. Although my soul has ascended my body still lies in the ground preserving the earth. Because of this, I chose to border the archer with two poppy plants to symbolize sleep and death. Both my name and my date of birth are located on the adjacent side of the monument. Above this information is a cross with an arrow going through it. The cross is a symbolism of my Christian beliefs and the arrow symbolizes being pierced by death’s swift blade. There is also a tongue of fire located in lower right hand corner of the cross symbolizing hope and faith in ascending into something greater. I chose this monument to be located in Spring Grove cemetery close to the woodland area and next to the lake in section 100. I’d enjoy having a few bushels of wild flowers growing around my burial as well. This is a portrayal of my ideal monument and in some way I hope it reflects my life and my personal beliefs.

Class discussion with John Tallmadge 08/20/09

-Week 8-
This week's visit with John Tallmadge, author of the Cincinnati Arch provided for a very good discussion. I was glad I was able to hear his and other students’ ideas about the cemetery as well as share a few of my own. It seems as though that after eight weeks we all have gained great insight on cemeteries and learned from each other in the process. John's ideas about Cincinnati and his novel are very inspiring. After the three hour discussion I wish we all still had more time to talk. It was a little odd that the door kept opening by itself and perhaps we did have some unexpected visitors. Overall I felt the whole class came together very well on our last week at Spring Grove.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Memorial Mausoleum 08/13/09

-Week 7-
This week we discussed Spring Grove and its function in our city. I felt highly at ease when we defined the cemetery as a tribute to friendship and community. This made sense to me because Spring Grove is definitely a large asset of the Cincinnati community, in which we are all stakeholders. We also defined a cemetery as somewhat of a home, because like a home, a cemetery is a place to rest and be with family. These two elements everyone seems to honor during death, and the cemetery itself becomes an honorable resting place that is well taken care of. I learned that a cemetery can serve as a reflection to society and it’s the values of the people that uphold the cemetery. I felt struck by this idea and think the fundamental difference between being inside a cemetery and being outside in its city is that a cemetery is more natural and less time conscious. I also gained some insight on John Tallmadge’s idea that man is naturally connected to the wildness of nature, but somehow Spring Grove seems too tame. I think Tallmadge feels this because Spring Grove is intended to be tame, in order to resemble a perfected, more controlled form of nature. The wild, unpredictable elements of nature are therefore replaced by deliberate human design of a picturesque form of nature in Spring Grove. Aside from class discussion, we also spent a good amount of time this week visiting the Memorial Mausoleum. I thought the stained glass windows depicting the Old and New Testament stories were reflective of the mausoleum’s overall design and the botanical styled door and exterior supported the cemetery’s garden feel. My favorite stained glass window was the one depicting the Virgin Mary and it reminded me of when I was a kid, saying the rosary in church with my grandma. The chapel inside had a stained glass window that was very nature inspiring. As it rests inside the mausoleum, I felt like it would generally be used more for solemn over celebratory events. Every other section we visited possessed an individual stained glass window and different colored marble walls, which served as the entombment for those who are buried in the mausoleum. It was a little eerie thinking that there were bodies buried inside the walls I was walking through, but I was very sympathetic when I saw flowers against all of the many different names. Some of the urns in the glass cases were even accompanied with photographs of the people who died which I thought was very respectful but a little sad. One of the urns depicting a couple sitting on a sofa together I thought was very insightful and perhaps the couple thought of companionship as the most meaningful part of life. The mausoleum halls seemed very empty and I thought how frightening it would be to be locked inside there alone. The basement felt baron as I descended down the empty looking staircase. The basement however, had one of the best stained glass windows in the entire mausoleum. It included some 20th century elements, including the moon landing and the atom, which Albert Einstein studied. My favorite part of this window was the mythological phoenix, rising from its ashes. When I looked at this piece of art I thought about the human condition, as all societies have been inclined to war, but strive for peace. As I was leaving the mausoleum I saw the same guest book I remembered seeing coming in. I thought about signing it to indicate I was visiting but decided not to, because I did not know anyone whom was buried inside.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Walkabout Reflection 08/06/09

-Week 6-
As this is the sixth week at Spring Grove, I feel like I am beginning to find a sense of direction and placement wherever I am within the cemetery. Recalling my first two weeks, I could not leave the Historic Office without feeling lost or overwhelmed. This week, I felt myself beginning to embrace the cemetery landmarks we walked past such as the Dexter, Strauch Island, Cedar Lake, the Sphinx, and the Burnet Mausoleum, making the walkabout seem less foreign and more native to my overall senses. I also find myself beginning to become familiar with the stories behind each stone. For example, this week I learned that the Dexters, of the Dexter Mausoleum, were whiskey barons in Cincinnati, originally from Germany. I also had the experience of seeing the Dexter mausoleum's large Gothic arches that hold its amazing structure and walking underneath the mausoleum, viewing it from the ground, up. Some of this history I'm learning is beginning to connect with the graves themselves so that when I hear the name, I think where the person is buried in Spring Grove, and I recall upon the history of the person's life. I also had the experience this week of seeing both the Spring Grove sphinx and the pyramid. These Egyptian icons like the obelisks, symbolize Egyptian beliefs in life and afterlife. The sphinx was used in Egyptian culture as a guardian of tombs and treasures. The pyramid, or the common Egyptian tomb, has such a unique shape in order to symbolize the rays beaming down from the sun. I learned that the sphinx in Spring Grove cemetery is a burial marker of Ann Lawler (1781- 1835) and Matt Lawler (1781- 1835), and Davis and Augusta Lawer, from Berlin, Prussia. I also learned that the pyramid in Spring Grove has four different languages written on each side of the pyramid's base. There is so much perspective I have been gaining each week when I visit Spring Grove. Its been a journey of ideas, history, art, architecture, spirituality, nature, and so much more.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Documentation of Adolph Strauch

Adolph Strauch was a man who took 733 acres of swampland and transformed it into a work of art. Spring Grove cemetery, which I have been studying these past few weeks, is a part Strauch’s architecture and perhaps his greatest achievement. Born August 30, 1882 of Prussian descent, Strauch found his way to Cincinnati and in 1855, agreed to handle Spring Grove’s landscaping and architecture. Strauch’s sole focus of Spring Grove was the cemetery’s appearance. By creating less clusters of bulky, disarranged monuments and integrating more scenic attributes, Strauch was able to transform the cemetery into a place to experience. I can say in my experience of the cemetery that the overall landscape does have a certain placement to it that is pleasing to the eye. Curiously, the bridge just north of the main entrance seems to open up the cemetery rather lavishly. This might be an example of Strauch’s ideal design. After his contributions to the cemetery, Strauch died of pneumonia at the age of 61. His body rests rightfully in Spring Grove which, according to his interment record, was his place of residence. His life is a fascinating history that not only makes Spring Grove cemetery what it is today, but it sheds a light on our city as well.

Below is a copy of Adolph Strauch's interment record:

Experiencing the Norman Chapel 07/30/09

-Week 5-
Paying a visit to the Norman Chapel made me question, how many people get married in a cemetery? It’s a paradox to think of two people coming to a place of burial to begin a new life. I think it has something to with the romanticism of death that draws people closer together, which would explain both Spring Grove Cemetery’s design as well as people getting married in the chapel itself. I feel that this idea was more widely proclaimed during the cholera epidemic of the late 19th century, when the Norman Chapel was built. Even so, this week's visit to Norman Chapel was an exciting one. From the outside of the chapel's stone walls to the inside of its pews and alter, there wasn't a nook or cranny that went unseen. Initially stepping in and seeing the chapel’s marble floors and Romanesque design attracted me to its beauty, and I felt that I was in somewhat of a sacred place. It looked as if I was in a church and it even smelled the same, reminding me of the days when I was younger and went to mass every Sunday.
I learned about the stone arches outside the chapel that provide structure for the sanctuary and investigated one of the olden wooden doors inside the chapel that looked damaged perhaps by age. I felt the chapel overall has been kept in pristine condition over the years and may reflect The Spring Grove Family’s care for their grounds. Behind the alter was a large stained glass window that provided an awesome sight. The window depicted Christ’s ascension into heaven and I learned that when the sun rises from the east, the window will illuminate the entire sanctuary. The most fascinating thing I learned about the chapel was that below there is a prison that was designed for holding captives and grave robbers of the cemetery. It's good to know the Spring Grove family does do all they can to keep visitors safe! There’s so much hidden behind every corner of Spring Grove and I continue to learn more as I immerse myself.