The Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City—home to Ralph Ellison, Charles Dickens’ son, and John Jacob Astor IV (who famously drowned in the sinking of the Titanic)—was described in a recent New York Times story that featured a quote from a local historian: “I think of [cemeteries] as parks with footnotes.” Sometimes these annotations are set in stone: birthdates that establish the age of a city and names that reveal who settled there first and who moved in later. Epigraphs chosen because they fit an individual’s life repeat across the graveyard, reflecting cultural fads or telegraphing religious fervor or ideology. Well-flowered tributes at unassuming graves point to a place where one family has lived for generations, progeny popping up along the path like a family tree planted in marble. Reappearing dates on memorials for the young overlap with moments of war or epidemic.
The absences are telling too—discrimination as landscape—as certain faiths or races are secluded in one section of the cemetery, or grafted back into a place’s footnotes by way of memorial, or by the welcoming of more recent arrivals. When you’re standing in the middle of an urban graveyard, often the city itself is visible. This is usually true whether the graveyard is hemmed in by an expanding living population eager to export more of its intellectual capital to the ground, or, when the graveyard is far away from the action, built to accommodate a growing number of occupants and left in undesirable real estate near highways or public utilities. And, if the cemetery is a good one, it announces itself as a repository of footnotes—when you look outside the gate and see the world built by this temple to primary sources, and rush out to read the rest of the story.
Jaime Fuller is a web editor at Lapham’s Quarterly.