Willa Cather's grave, Jaffrey, NH

Yesterday Kathleen and I visited the grave of Willa Cather in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, NH, right down the road from Keene. Although Kathleen had visited this particular graveyard before, she didn’t know that Willa Cather was buried there; as for me, I’d never even been to the so-called historic district of Jaffrey, only having breezed through the outskirts of town on my way to or from other destinations. I was surprised, initially, to learn that Willa Cather, one of my favorite 20th century novelists, was buried right here in southern New Hamsphire since her two most famous novels, O Pioneers and My Antonia, are set in the flatlands of Nebraska. But Cather often summered in Jaffrey, during which time she rented rooms at the Shattuck Inn and wrote in a tent pitched in a meadow with a vista of Mount Monadnock.

Cather’s grave is remarkable in several ways. Large and impressive, it includes a quote from My Antonia: “that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.” (For an enlarged version of Cather’s headstone, click here.) Situated at the corner of the Old Burying Ground, Cather’s tombstone actually faces away from its neighbors: as you approach the grave, you walk up upon its backside, not its face. In a word, Cather looks as if she’d been sent to sit with her nose in the corner, her final resting place in the remotest nook of the cemetery, facing outward. Is this a subtle statement about Cather’s outsider status in the town of Jaffrey: although buried among natives, she never truly became one?

Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, NH

I’m a long-time fan of old cemeteries: in my mind, there’s something oddly peaceful about wandering the final resting place of so many long-deceased souls. In a world of perpetual change and uncertainty, death is one thing that never changes and is incessantly certain. Although life expectancies, mortuary technologies, and gravestone fashions have changed over the years, the simple fact of mortality’s final end hasn’t altered a whit. Granted, in today’s modern medicalized world, it may be uncommon for a single family to bury in succession two children, both named John, at the tender ages of 3 weeks and 6 years, the grief of a parent losing a child at any age surely hasn’t changed. (For an enlarged version of this double headstone, click here.)

Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, NH

From a purely practical perspective, cemeteries are a waste of resources. Often occupying prime plots of otherwise usable land, they are dotted with stones whose owners can’t properly appreciate them. But rightly considered, cemeteries and stones aren’t plotted and wrought for the benefit of their deceased inhabitants: virtually any place is a peaceful resting place when you’re dead. Instead, cemeteries are set down as both a comfort and reminder to the living: here’s where your loved ones have gone, and here’s where you too shall go. Thus the grim portent on a carved marker serves as a literal sermon in stone: above a winged angel balancing an hourglass on his head spans the exhortation “My glass is run & so must yours.” (For an enlarged detail from this stone, click here.) From this stonecutter’s perspective, the purpose of grief is to nudge mourners to consider the state of their own souls, not that of the dearly departed. Once you find yourself six feet under, it’s too late to repent and believe; contemplating someone else’s grave, though, you still have time to put your own spiritual house in order.

Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, NH

Jaffrey’s Old Burying Ground, like many old cemeteries, offers such a reminder of mortality, a memento mori, not merely via the manmade markers but through the natural landscape that surrounds those stones. Lying in the shadow of a meeting house built in 1775, the Old Burying Ground is bounded by stone walls and towering trees; even so, the passage of time is still perpetually apparent. Sprinkled amongst the tombstones are the stumps of massive trees felled to time, their trunks sawed clean but their roots intact. “Gone but not forgotten” these graying stubs seem to say; graves that were laid in the shade in days gone past are now subject to sun and storm. (For an enlarged version of this image, click here.) When grieving families selected to emblazon their loved ones’ graves with fingers pointing upward, they intended this as a spiritual lesson: our hopes lie above, in heaven. Today, though, these weathered digits point to leafy crowns that no longer spread across the New Hampshire sky: although longer-lived than humans, even trees pass the way of all flesh.