Mississippi writer/horticulturist Felder Rushing, who was a friend and neighbor of novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty, wrote me soon after the author’s recent death, describing how “Miss Welty” was laid to rest in a cemetery just a few hundred yards from where she was born and raised:
Eudora is buried beneath a huge cedar tree, beside a southern magnolia, very shady. No roses will grow there, but I am planning on setting out some sweet flags iris-I.albicans, and old, old passalong-and a native woods fern. Would you like a pressed flower from her grave?
I told my friend I’d be honored to have a pressed flower from Eudora Welty’s grave. If possible, I added, might I also have a photograph of her headstone?
I don’t think Welty would have minded my request. After all, her last book was a collection of photographs of rural Mississippi cemeteries. Many people do not know Welty was an accomplished photographer. Her Country Churchyards contains photographs taken by the writer during her stint as a Works Progress Administration photographer in the 1930s and 40s.
Welty “took pleasure in graveyards” and “saw merriment in the stones” according to her friend Hunter Cole. In the introduction to Country Churchyards, writer Elizabeth Spencer says Welty saw in cemeteries “a vision of death as a part of life” in terms of them being extensions of community and family.
One of my favorite graveyards is the “community” of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a place where weathered monuments are cradled by hills and valleys and surrounded by trees. There is a feeling of timelessness and serenity. In her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty once described a similar cemetery :
The top of the hill ahead was crowded with winged angels and life-sized effigies of bygone citizens…standing as if by count among the columns and shafts and conifers like a familiar set of passengers collected on deck of a ship, on which they all knew each other-bona-fide members of a small local excursion, embarked on a voyage that is always returning in dreams.
In a section of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery referred to as Author’s Ridge are the final resting places of a community of writers who indeed knew each other: the American Transcendentalists-Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.
I visited Author’s Ridge ten years ago, when my three children, now teenagers, were quite young. On a stone bench with my two oldest boys beside me, I read a story aloud to them while the wind whispered through the trees. Remembering that time, I understand Welty’s delight in Cemeteries.
Readers who feel similarly about graveyards or want to know where people are buried might be interested in a website I stumbled upon recently. Called findagrave.com, the site is, in essence, a virtual cemetery. It lists the final resting places of both famous and “non-famous” people. Pictures of monuments and graves are often included, as well as causes of death and short biographies. Since cemeteries, virtual and otherwise, have stories to tell, findagrave.com makes good reading.
Perusing this site, I soon uncovered some fascinating facts about some late authors. For instance, a writer’s literal final place of rest may have to do with where his or her heart was in life figuratively. For example: The ashes from the body of Thomas Hardy are buried in Westminster Abbey. His heart, however, is buried in his hometown, with his two wives and beside his parents.
Half of William Saroyan’s ashes are interred in Fresno, California; the other half are in his beloved homeland, Armenia.
Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir share a headstone in Paris in Cimetiere de Montparnasse. The remains of romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly lie buried in Rome, while his heart-“pressed flat, in a copy of the poet’s ‘Adonais,'” according to findagrave.com page contributor David Conway- was eventually interred in St. Peter’s, Bournemouth,” England, with the love of his life, his wife, author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Married poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, alas, were separated in death. She lies in the Cimitero Degli Inglesi in Florence, Italy, while he lies alongside Alfred Lord Tennyson in the Poet’s Corner section of England’s Westminster Abbey.
e. e. cumming’s ashes were buried next to his wife in Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Ironically-perhaps by oversight, perhaps deliberately-his memorial plaque reads “E. E. CUMMINGS”-his name is in all capitals.
Many writers, it appears, chose cremation over burial, and had themselves dispersed in places they found meaningful. Thus, according to findagrave.com, D. H. Lawrence had his ashes mixed into the masonry alter in the chapel on his ranch in New Mexico. Henry Miller’s ashes were scattered off Big Sur. Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, is scattered in the Pacific Ocean. The ashes of Anais Nin are in Santa Monica Bay.
Dorothy Parker’s ashes are in Baltimore, Maryland, in a garden at the headquarters of the NAACP. Daphne du Maurier had her ashes scattered on the cliffs near Cornwall, England. Two writers chose to have a quarter of their ashes launched into space: Timothy Leary and Gene Roddenbery.
The authors in Sleepy Hollow’s Author’s Ridge are a modest bunch. Their graves belie their earthly celebrity. Surprisingly, Henry David Thoreau, often thought of as a solitary man, is one of four children buried in a family plot with a small tombstone which reads, simply, “Henry.”
Louisa May Alcott is buried similarly. Her name appears simply on a flat stone on the ground in a plot dominated by a monument to her father, A. Bronson Alcott. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave bears nothing save his surname. Emerson alone has a somewhat special marker: an engraved plate attached to a large marble stone.
Contrast this with the final resting place of France’s author Victor Hugo, long revered by his countryman as a hero. Hugo is interred in the elaborate Pantheon building in Paris, along with Emile Zola, Voltaire, Diderot and Malraux.
Again perusing findagrave.com, I found it astonishing how many American writers-men and women of words-have so little to say on their headstones. Often their stones contain merely dates and a name. Surprisingly, even quotation compiler Charles Bartlett is buried in a “silent” grave.
Some American authors who at least indicate their profession are James Michener, whose headstone contains the words “Traveler, Citizen, Writer,” and Stephen Crane, “Poet-Author.”
I’m wondering what will be written on Eudora Welty’s headstone. Will there be an epitaph, or just her dates? Will there be any indication that she was among America’s writing greats? When Felder Rushing sends me a photograph-or when findagrave.com adds the listing to its site-I will know the end of the story of Eudora Welty’s earthly life. I will place pressed petals and picture between the pages of my copy of The Eye of the Story, or perhaps, more appropriately, at the end of One Writer’s Beginnings. It will serve as a sort of epilogue, and a reminder-as per Welty in The Optimist’s Daughter-that in cemeteries and in life, we are all passengers.