Grave cleaning is a lost art. When the professor of Death, Dying and The Afterlife, a religious studies class that invites students to contemplate their own mortality, suggested it as an extra credit opportunity, I initially worried that the groundskeepers would get upset with me for doing their job. But, according to Professor Hart, they rarely clean the cemetery themselves.
At first sight, the cemetery appears well-maintained. Artificial flowers adorn most graves, even older ones from the 1920’s. Headstones don’t look dirty, they just look like stone. But upon touching one, my hand comes away with streaks of dirt.
I set out with an unused white sponge, a box of baking soda, and a bowl of water, with two water bottles to supplant it if necessary. You don’t want to bring in any cleaning chemicals that would damage the stone.
My first grave belongs to Silva Henry Genzoli, a private in the US army during WW1. They lived from 1894 to 1976, dying at 82.
It’s interesting, out of all aspects of life, Silva chose to commemorate their service in the army. Why did they define themself by the military? Googling their name comes up with nothing but family trees and the burial directory. So this is really all that is left of poor, dead, Silva.
The sponge comes away grey, and turns the water dark. The stone itself is dark with water, the inscription a bit clearer.
My next grave is a bit fancier, a cross standing up, rather than a standard plaque. It reads “ths” in between the arms of the cross. The bottom reads “Maria Soares, 1904-1929, Rest In Peace.” There is now a battered white circle where presumably a photo once was. She was 25. I’m 22. I’m going to die someday.
Her name is still a common one today, with links coming up for various social media profiles, and the website of a producer who came to NYC from San Paolo with no English speaking ability. Nothing about our dead Maria of the 1920’s.
Graves are futile. Sure, we have names, birth dates, death dates, a photo if you’re rich and lucky, maybe something about acts of service, relationships, or where they were born. (There’s a lot of “natives of Italy” inscriptions.) But what really remains of the person? Wouldn’t you prefer to have stories told about you, have people 100 years from now read your writings, or walk through a forest you dedicated yourself to preserving?
The next grave belonged to a child. George Roberts Simmons was born Feb 7, 1921 and died April 29 of that year. He has a small standing headstone, with the inscription “There are no partings in Heaven.”
His grave is fancier than most adult graves that only have a plaque. Were his parents super rich? Was he an only child and his parents felt the need to be the best parents they could be for the final time? Or did he perhaps have siblings, and his parents felt that having this dedication would help them process his death?
I genuinely don’t understand the desire to do toxic things to your loved one’s body and cramming it into a small stone room. Cemeteries are cool, relaxing places to just take a walk in and contemplate mortality. But despite the serenity and open air, embalming fluid is leaking out beneath your feet, endangering the local groundwater.
This is a topic that recently came up in death class, and while eco-friendly ways to process your body were brought up, some had the dissenting opinion that this is a chance to pour your love into the final memory of your loved one, with a carefully wrought description, photographs or artwork.
The post-death process is expensive and leaves people vulnerable. The casket shop will offer you a menu of expensive options that often lead to debt. But for some, this is a symbol of devotion.