Hi! I’m back. Did you miss me? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
File this post in the humongous category: Things I was wrong about.
Some time ago, I wrote a post where I misread a headstone. Well, today I tell you about another error I made in a cemetery.
The first cemetery I ever “visited” just to experience a cemetery was in Port Gamble, WA (not far from where the Keystone Ferry unloads). It’s a sweet little spot on a hill with peekaboo views of Puget Sound.
That was the first time I fell in love with a cemetery, and amongst the headstones was one that became a favorite, not because it was particularly ornate. In fact, it was innocuous enough that I often had a hard time finding it again on subsequent visits. No, I loved it because of the inscription on it:
In memory of
Suard B. Ackly,
Born in Culler Maine
Died July 22, 1885
Aged 39 years
Her suffering ended with the day, yet lived she at its close,
And breathed the long long night away, in statue-like repose.
But when the sun in all his state illumed the eastern skies,
she passed through glories morning gate and walked in paradise.
When I read this, I felt like I was reading the account of Maggie’s final hours. Many headstones have inscriptions, often of poems, quotes, Bible verses and the like. Fewer have something more personal etched upon them. None that I’ve encountered have actually documented the moment of death of the person buried there.
For years I made the assumption that this particular headstone had, in an admittedly poetic way, described the dying of someone. After all, the words seemed too specific to be from a pre-existing poem. I found it fascinating and oddly intimate to feel like I was there in the final hours of a woman who died so young (by our standards) nearly a century before I was even born.
As it happens (and thanks to the world of information available on the interwebs), I have since learned that this inscription was actually a poem titled “A Death-Bed” by James Aldrich. Oh, how disillusioning! Did Suard B. borrow the poem under which he buried his wife without attributing it to its author?
To be fair, the headstone is well-worn and any attribution might be obscured. Still, I was disappointed to discover that what I thought was a very personal depiction of a woman’s passing was a second-hand account. I don’t even know if it’s accurate to how her last hours went, or if it was just a poem someone liked enough to include on her final marker.
Is it morbid of me to want that glimpse into the moment when life ended for another human being? Or is it just a fascination I have with the fact that every headstone in any cemetery was once new, vivid, raw and real for the dead and those they left behind. Behind every marker is the story of a person’s life and death, and somehow, standing in that space where they were laid to rest brings me into contact with a significant moment in time for that person. Standing there, I can’t help but think of those who have stood in the same spot, pondering the same marker, perhaps experiencing first-hand memories of the person whose ending is memorialized there.
So, I was wrong about Maggie’s headstone, but it still holds a special place in my experience. Rest in peace, dear Maggie E.
I leave you with this, just ’cause.
Past the gate
creaks metal springs
a wonderland of peace
and reminders of
death’s inevitable hand
In stones etched
the spans of life
words of hope and grief
The energy of the living
is as strong as any ghosts
those who stood
clad in tears and black
mourning the loss
of dear Maggie E
wife of Suard B
where they might
stroll hand in hand