Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Grave Time - Report From Austin No. 3

Last weekend when I went to a conference in Texas's weirdest city ("weird" in a good way) I realized something. We were sleeping beside the dead.

Located on the east side of I-35, across from downtown, the Oakwood Cemetery is the oldest city-owned cemetery in Austin. Some of graves date back to just before the Civil War. One story is that the cemetery was started out of grim necessity when victims of a Comanche raid were buried on what came to be called Swede Hill.

I woke early after our first night in our cushy bedroom, took the down elevator, and went for a stroll in the parking lot. I peered over the low stone fence, then I hurried back to the room. I looked at our son and I said two words: "Photo shoot."

Not to sound morbid, but it has occurred to me that my year-long project in imitation of Rip Van Winkle gives me something in common with the dead.

The dead have no idea of what has gone on in the news of late. Or the news of past decades. It has passed them by and left them with no worries. Only endless sleep.

We went out right at sunrise so we could take advantage of morning magic hour with the golden light pouring in low over the stones.

The cemetery was in a state of disrepair. We didn't see any graffiti, but many of the markers had fallen down.

Numerous formerly stately tall trees had been sawed off at about the height of a man because they had presumably died, been blown over by the wind, or been lightning struck. No new trees had been planted in their stead.

The rest of what we saw showed the effects of time which brings rain and gritty winds and buffs the stone surfaces until once important words start to dissolve like lozenges that have been held a long time upon the tongue.

And I wondered, "Is this what happens to grief?" Does baby Richard who lived only 3.5 months during one awful year of the American Civil War eventually fade along with his name and the dates so that the sorrow may always be there, but its rough edges and deep cuts are now worn away?

I'm not the only one who has meditated on such "grave" matters: Austin Chronicle.

As we continued walking, looking, photographing, I found that I could be moved by a name and a few words. As was the case with Lillie when I peered close and read the full inscription:

"A Beautiful Flower
by Her Heavenly Father
From Earth to Heaven."

The marker was precise about how long Lillie was with her family. She died on April 9, 1867. That made her seventeen years and five months at the time of her uprooting. A teenager who never lived long enough to fall in love and marry and become someone's wife...

There was time enough to wander further into Oakwood. A friendly cat came up and began to follow us. Even though it's home seemed to be among the dead, it was not macabre. It only wanted to be petted.

Austin's other major resting place, the state cemetery, is not far away. It is better maintained and contains many more of the famous than Oakwood, which confines itself to a few former governors and an unfortunately named oil heiress, Ima Hogg, of Houston fame.

I have to say, though, that I like Oakwood and it's feel of being something like Roman ruins. There are no pretensions here. The grass is not green and  the tallest monuments raised by the wealthy in defiance of Death have either toppled or appear starkly defeated.

It's an honest place. - A.H.


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