In Memoriam: On Cemeteries and the Memory of Ordinary Lives
Who could not be superstitious, sentimental, and impractical around matters of death?
When my students and I pulled up to the Old Parish Burying Ground, the oldest colonial cemetery in Freeport, Maine, the weather was more fitting for telling ghost stories than for historical fieldwork. The ground was shrouded in fog, the tree branches were dark and spidery against the sky, and the air smelled like dead leaves and chimney smoke. I teach tenth grade humanities, and this trip was part of our local history unit on analyzing primary sources.
My students were armed with clipboards and background information about the study of New England graveyards as well as Freeport’s history, culture, and lore. They’d also learned about Noah Pratt, Jr., a stone carver whose distinctive gravestones from the 1780s could be found throughout the cemetery. I’d spent the past six weeks emphasizing basic historical principles I hoped my students would apply to their note-taking and fieldwork. As they dispersed, I had the impulse to yell—as I always do when they’re tackling a new project—“Remember your training!”
you too shall die.
Rebecca Turkewitz teaches humanities at Coastal Studies for Girls, a semester high school in Freeport, Maine. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Ohio State University. Her short stories, essays, and humor writing have appeared or are forthcoming in The Sewanee Review, Harpur Palate, The Toast, Sonora Review, The New Yorker, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
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“I imagined that spending so much time with a dead thing might make death more understandable.”