Monday, October 24, 2005

Grave Matters

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, October 20, 2005:
The Rondout Courier of May 24, 1850 contains a modest and to modern eyes refreshingly low-key advertisement for a general store — no double-cents-off, no two-for-one promotion, no seasonal special, no can-can fest. “NEW ARRIVAL,” it reads, “E. SUYDAM would inform his friends and the public generally that he has just received a fresh supply of Groceries and a good amount of Crockery, to which he calls particular attention.”

Life was different in 1850: it may have been slower, gentler. But Death was neither slow nor gentle, only nearer, on the printed page as in everyday things. A mere two inches up from Suydam’s notice, in the same column, perched above the “Fashion Reports” and “Summer Mail Arrangements,” are the death announcements of the past week in Kingston and Rondout (then two separate villages) and a posting of the newly created Montrepose Cemetery Association, now legally organized and open for public inspection. “The area of Montrepose, deducting for roads, paths, shrubbery, &c., leaves space for 1000 lots of 600 square feet each. The price of the lots is now at the low rate of $12 each,” and of that only half need be paid up front.

Groceries, crockery, burial grounds, one was sold as matter-of-factly as another. The undulating Montrepose grounds formed a beautiful landscape — “peculiarly adapted to the formation of a rural cemetery,” wrote the Courier’s editor, “as it is of a varied surface” — that was inspiring to traverse and not the least bit morbid or scary. Death casts no shadow here.

Among the prominent Kingston and Rondout denizens residing peacefully here today are architect Calvert Vaux and his accomplished sons Bowyer and Downing, all related by marriage to painters Jervis McEntee and his cousin Julia McEntee Dillon; painter Joseph Tubby and illustrator Anton Otto Fischer; poet Henry Abbey; and industrialists Thomas Cornell and his son-in-law Samuel Coykendall, whose expansive family plot is marked by an imposing pergola, built-in seats, a winding walkway, and a curving stone facade. Patent-medicine king David Kennedy has a mausoleum upon a hillock. (Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary, defines mausoleum as “the final and funniest folly of the rich.”)

There is even a memorial to Kingston’s founder and Lord of the Manor of Fox Hall, Thomas Chambers, who had been buried on his land along the Strand in 1694 but was re-interred at Montrepose in the year of its founding. Vaux and McEntee have been the subjects of previous “Wake the Echoes” columns — December 23, 2004 and January 13, 2005, respectively — and certainly all the others named above will have their own space here as well as in Montrepose, Providence and my editors permitting.

Montrepose was an outgrowth of the rural cemetery movement that swept the country after the creation of Mt. Auburn in the Boston area in 1831 and Green-Wood in Brooklyn seven years later. Pleasure grounds for the living as well as harmonious lodging for the remains of the departed, the sylvan settings presaged the public parks and ball fields that in the latter half of the century provided a bit of countryside to urban toilers.

But make no mistake about it: while cemeteries may be good for contemplative strolling or even, a century ago, picnicking, what they are truly about is death. The inspiration for the rural cemetery was not only beauty but also the beast: pestilence and epidemic, borne by water or air. Headlines today radiate fear of avian flu (which virologists term H5N1) reaching our shores from Asia. Often these stories employ chilling reference to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 that is said to have claimed 50 million lives worldwide. HN51 has already moved beyond chickens, ducks, and the occasional person who handles them, to cats — killing tigers at the Bangkok zoo — and pigs, which in the past have been intermediary carriers of flu from birds to humans.

The fear of exogenous, invisible, cargo-hold-borne disease hit home locally with the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849, both of which ravaged the port of Rondout. New York City, similarly afflicted in those plague years, by mid-century banned further burials, diverted streams, drained ponds, and plowed under or built over graveyards, all in the name of sanitation and progress though often enough the motive was profit, too.

The cholera pandemic of 1832 was not America’s first instance of virulent disease. There had been outbreaks of measles in Boston in 1657 and 1687; influenza throughout the colonies as early as 1732; smallpox in South Carolina in 1738; and the dreaded yellow fever, beginning in Philadelphia in the 1790s and wreaking havoc in New York in 1803 and 1822. Death seldom provides a pleasant passage, but cholera was uniquely gruesome. In the early 1830s the West waited in terror for the disease, which originated in Asia, to make its way from Moscow to London and Paris and, ultimately, the New World. In a now famous letter dated April 9, 1832, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1796-1856) described the outbreak of cholera in Paris:

On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, ‘violet-blue’ in the face [drowning in their own blood as fluid leaked into their lungs]. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes [masks]. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville [as translated in Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, Epidemics, Scribner's, 1976].

This is the specter that confronted Rondout and Kingston at midcentury. Some worker housing had been burned to the ground to check the spread of the disease, but this succeeded only in part. It was imperative that the dead had to be distanced from the living. In the May 21, 1850 issue, The Rondout Courier’s editor had noted: “We may remark here that the village burial ground in Rondout scarcely affords room for another interment, and its situation would be a serious objection to farther [sic] burials there, even were it not thus. The two Kingston burial grounds, (we are informed) afford no room for new lots, thus rendering it desirable that another place for the dead be provided as a measure of present necessity, besides the prospective reason of a probable general law forbidding interments in village bounds, which will close both.”

Today, a century and half later, we await the avian flu with a dread born of previous pandemics — even the flu epidemics within living memory, those of 1957 and 1968. Let us hope that the plentiful space at Montrepose for additional gravesites proves not to be its way out of current financial straits. Very recently lot prices rose from $475 to $600, still a bargain and not yet enough to assure that Montrepose will remain the garden spot that “cannot be exceeded for beauty and scope in this region,” as it was described at its founding.

As Joshua Brustein wrote recently in The Gotham Gazette of another notable resting place, New York City’s Marble Cemetery: “Not having the money for continued maintenance is a serious concern for aging cemeteries. In the past some have disappeared below new development, a fate that theoretically won't happen now because the restrictions for new development on cemetery land are even tougher than those keeping cemeteries from developing new land. But the threat of falling into disrepair or abandonment is real, say some who manage historic cemeteries in the city. To avoid this, they are looking beyond burials to other fundraising possibilities....”

Montrepose may need to give up on the idea that it is simply a beautiful cemetery, though it is all of that. It can also be an outdoor theater, in which actors and writers take on the parts of the illustrious dead in a scripted theatrical presentation. It can host spooky films at Halloween. It can become Kingston’s Central Park.

--John Thorn


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