Midway through a lazy summer before my freshman year of college, my grandmother asked me if I would like to pay my great-grandmother a visit.
So I accompanied my grandparents to Mount Carmel cemetery, a tightly packed maze of monuments built by Brooklyn’s well-to-do Jewish families on a slope next to the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens. And I was surprised when my grandmother, looking down at her mother’s gravestone, her meticulously coiffed hair tangling in the wind, turned to my grandfather, and declared: “This is where I want to go.” My grandfather, a son of the South, explained that he had always imagined he would be laid to rest in the shade of willow trees and Spanish moss in his native Montgomery — far from the clamor of highways or the shadow of skyscrapers. Here, things were simply too crowded.
Yet this was exactly the point. “This is a good neighborhood,” my grandmother retorted. A Jewish girl from Brooklyn who had moved to the South after a dozen dates and three years of college, she refused to spend eternity so far from home.
For nearly a century, the town of New Haven buried its dead in a communal grave behind its Center Church and beneath the large square park we now call the New Haven Green. But after a deadly yellow fever outbreak in 1794, the town elders resolved to build a proper cemetery. James Hillhouse 1773 acquired the bulk of New Haven’s “Second Quarter” in 1796 to make room for its dead.
Now the cemetery has filled as the University town has expanded; it sits just north of the center of Yale’s gothic campus, bordering long stretches of sidewalk that lead to more classrooms and laboratories. Hillhouse planned the cemetery to have eleven avenues of its own, all of which, excluding Center Avenue, are named after a different variety of tree that was to line its gravel paths (this never materialized). Towering obelisks and arching angels are the norm, and one casually passes the graves of Noah Webster 1778, of dictionary fame, or Eli Whitney 1792, whose classical sarcophagus has high drama but no interchangeable parts. And then there are the Yale presidents, whose imposing plots their school has always bought well in advance: from Clapp and Stiles to Griswold and Brewster.
Now at Yale, where these names carry a kind of mythic meaning, I’ve often walked along the Cemetery’s high walls and thought of my unexpected trip to Carmel. As much as I sympathized with my grandmother, I wondered why anyone would want to be buried in an urban jungle like Carmel; I wondered why it mattered at all where we are buried after death, let alone whom we are buried near.
So I decide to look for my own plot at Grove Street. I meet with Joan and Bill Cameron, an elderly couple who have overseen the cemetery for the past thirty-four years. Joan, whose high pitch lends her voice the character of a little girl with a sore throat, figures only a hundred plots remain, each of which runs $6,500. There is no student discount, but there is a guarantee of eternal upkeep. I ask about finding an obelisk or a monument (I am concerned about fitting in). Bill tells me those are still common but pricey. Had I died in the mid-1800s, I could have ordered a more reasonably priced “Clinky,” an elegant obelisk made from a hollow template of removable metal parts. The innovation allowed family members to unscrew and replace an inscription long after a beloved’s death. Only decades later, paranoid plot shoppers had laid this short-lived cemetery fad to rest.
I suddenly feel daunted by the prospect of making a decision I will have to die with. According to Bill I am not alone. “You’d be surprised how much you learn about people working at a cemetery, how different they all are,” he tells me. “Some of them agonize over choosing the location of their plot for months. Others just flip a coin.” Neither method sounds particularly appealing.
I ask for Joan’s top recommendation — number 62, some 50 plots north of the Cemetery’s Grove Street gate, at the end of Laurel Avenue. “It’s a nice neighborhood,” she says. And it is. I am just next door to a shared family plot, which houses in two halves the wives and children of Charles Hubbel and Horace Morton, who died in the 1890s. The miniature pipe fence that surrounds their compound is elegant and inviting, providing a landmark that will make directions to my plot more readable — a promising indication that good fences really do make good neighbors. After a quick visit next door, I know that Charles married Horace’s sister and that both families lost children young — Charles Jr. at 24 and James Morton at just 15 months.
62 Laurel Avenue is beautiful. Two small trees bend out from the plot next door; there is shade enough to waste a long summer afternoon, not more than a two-hour drive from Carmel. I feel as if I could take it then and there, but suddenly I feel homesick.
Three weeks after our visit to Carmel cemetery, my grandmother invited me to see Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Everyone knows that “Our Town” is sad. “Such sobbing and nose-blowing you never heard,” a young Wilder wrote to the society hostess Sybil Colfax in 1937, horrified by the reaction to previews of the play’s third act. “Matinee audience, mostly women, emerged red-eyed, swollen faced, and mascara-stained. I never meant that.”
But how could Wilder not have? Just halfway through the act, tears melted my grandmother’s mascara into those smudgy streams of bluish black. And while I did not have to worry about mascara stains, my resolve to keep dry in all of the usual manly ways — staring at the wall, fingering my keys — barely prevented an embarrassing overflow.
It has been four years since my grandmother ruined her favorite handkerchief, but the sight of grave stones still makes me wonder how such a simple third act can be so devastating: how Wilder’s Emily Gibbs, now dead and buried in the town cemetery, learns from her new neighbors that the dead can visit the living just as the living visit the dead; how after revisiting just one morning of her life, she flees back to her tombstone, overwhelmed by the realization that we cannot comprehend the value of life until after death; how graveyards are made of neighborhoods we can visit and depart, and other neighborhoods where we must choose to remain.