It is strange to cross that threshold, to step between the reddish pillars and into a field of graves. On one side, Grove Street bustles steadily; on the other, there is just quiet air and grass studded with neat rows of stones, like granite fingernails. It seems unnatural to enter a cemetery without some morose obligation: to attend a funeral or lay flowers on a grave. I instantly feel like a trespasser amidst the epitaphs and fresh mounds. And the birds — there must be hundreds of them, converged on the roof of a small brick building.
From the outside, the cemetery’s Main Grounds Building is quaint and tidy, with bricks arrayed in decorative arches over the windows. There is not a shingle out of place. Something about the rounded windows and the curve of the roof lends the building the feel of a miniature cathedral. The top half of the front door swings open like a ticket window. As I approach, there is a sound of shuffling, the sigh of papers hitting a desk, and then a leathery face at the door. “I’m the cemetery superintendent,” says a gruff smoker’s voice. “What can I help you with?”
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Bill Cameron Jr. looks very much like an owl, with his bright eyes, feathery eyebrows, and rounded shoulders. He is heavily whiskered and dressed in dirty slacks and a patriotic sweatshirt. His face erupts into a craggy smile, and then he is suddenly jovial, impish, playing the host. I am led up the stone stairs and into the office that Bill Cameron Jr. has occupied for 32 years.
I’ve never seen so much dust in my life. There is dust hanging in dim beams of light from the windows, coating the faded linoleum floor, a thin crust on desks and stacks of papers, caked on Bill’s shoes and under his fingernails. The air tastes like dust and smells like stale bread. As my eyes adjust to the grey light, I see a remarkable labyrinth of clutter: There are spindly chairs tucked among piles of books and boxes, a wooden barrel, newspaper clippings, figurines, old photographs, an enormous jar of pennies, more wood carvings than I knew existed, taxidermy with rumpled feathers and missing limbs. The walls are a sickly pea green and two yellowed light fixtures hang from the ceiling.
Bill has spent his life as superintendent of the Grove Street Cemetery. “I’m sick of it,” he says, swatting the air, but then reconsiders: “Actually, I don’t know if I’m sick of it. I like the outdoors. It’s beautiful here.” He looks out the window. “That’s why I came in the first place.” To my left, there is a fish tank filled with rocks embedded in sand — hefty, bulbous things in dizzying shades of purple and red. “Someone gave me that rock collection,” says Bill. “I used to know all their names, but I forget now. I love rocks.”
The tangle of trinkets that litter the room reveals his other passions. Bill collects everything from animal figurines to duck decoys to naval-themed paintings. Most of all, he is an avid wood-carver. His creations line the walls: horses with heads reared and manes billowing, birds of prey posed mid-flight, ships looming on turbulent seas. He slides a box out from under a table and dumps a collection of wooden birds into my lap. Many are quite beautiful. “You could sell these,” I tell him. “I don’t doubt it,” he says proudly.
On the subject of cemetery business, Bill is nonchalant. “I do everything here, cutting the grass, funerals, all that. Eighty percent of our funerals are now cremations. People are really getting into that,” he says lightly, as though discussing Pilates or some posh new diet. And then, after a moment: “I guess it could be depressing, but you get used to it.” He chews on a fingernail. “Nah, I don’t know if you get used to it. You learn to live with it. Let’s put it that way.”
I spot another fish tank, propped against the back wall. Inside is a miniature cemetery: little graves made of pieces of cardboard and wood, adorned with sprigs of tumbleweed and twigs, complete with a tiny church in the middle of it all. “I made it during a snowstorm, when I was bored,” Bill explains. He beams, running his fingers over the muddied glass. On the floor beside it is a large red clay skull, sculpted by Bill and his son. Death seems little more than another oddity here, something else shelved and gathering dust with a hundred other relics.
The sun is garishly bright when Bill walks me outside. Part of his comb-over flops and flutters in the wind. I stand with him and look out at the cemetery. “It’s beautiful, eh?” he says. He trudges out back to take out the trash and leaves me sitting on a stone bench beneath a dogwood tree. Bill has strewn birdseed along the path leading through the graveyard, and an enormous flock of black-feathered birds is feeding. The place feels more like an arboretum than a cemetery, with its trim, manicured shrubs and trees. The birds are quiet here, reverently restraining their warbles. The breeze is very slight and the plots are dappled with sun. The gravestones are aligned like teeth, their edges softened by moss.
Bill returns after a few moments and starts up the stairs to his office. “Stop by anytime, say hello,” he says. As I walk towards Grove Street, a car horn sounds and suddenly, magnificently, the birds depart as one. There is a momentous beating of wings, and then the air grows silent again. I wave to Bill and he waves back. I pass through the pillars and turn back once to see the birds and the grass and the tidy rows of graves and the soft light on all of it, filtered through the gates.