Repent ye, vipers
As would be expected of a dark and morbid person, I like cemeteries. I wouldn't say I'm a connoisseur of cemeteries the way I'm a connoisseur of Places You Can Get Waffles (my kitchen is so far the best place to get waffles, closely followed by a street vendor on Baker Street in London who dips them in chocolate, which is cheating), but it's on my list of life goals.
In terms of cemeteries, Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery is hard to beat. It's got a dramatic glacial landscape, it's an arboretum, it's breathtaking in the spring and the fall, it's also breathtaking in the summer and winter, it's full of history, it has what I judge to be an unusually high number of shall we say nonconformists in it, and of course it is the burial place of both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Top notch cemetery. The best cemetery. A tremendous cemetery, if you will.
Having said that, when you take a tour of a cemetery you're really kind of asking to be unnerved. It's not so much the dead people and their deadness. It's what they did when they were alive. When you take a tour of a Victorian cemetery around Halloween, in the dark, in the misty rain, they tell you all the creepy stuff. The one that got me was the story of the woman and her brother who had what I will call an inappropriate relationship; the woman's husband being a barrier to this relationship, they - how shall I put it - murdered him viciously and at length. Then, for reasons passing understanding, they went to see their mother. They were caught, naturally, and hanged. Their mother had them buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, but she couldn't afford gravestones. And that is when I learned that a patch of grass that I had previously thought was just that - a patch of grass - was actually the unmarked grave of two murderers. Hmmmmmm. Officially unnerved.
I much preferred the story about the gentleman who, after perfecting the art of playing a woman on stage, decided to play a woman in real life, and lived his life in a dress, with his partner. He was from London, I think, but he ended up in Rochester with a pair of sort of adopted guardians, whom he paid to care for him when he was dying of syphilis in his early thirties. They are all three buried together; his partner is buried in an unmarked grave in London. Now that is a tragic novel waiting to happen. Could someone get on that, please? I wish to sob uncontrollably, thank you very much.
I've been to Mount Hope Cemetery many times, and each time the big question was: WHAT'S IT LIKE INSIDE THE CREMATORIUM? At long last, my dreams have come true: I have been inside and I can tell you what it's like.
Unnerving is what it's like. It's been in disuse for ages and is bare inside. It smells old and hollow and faintly moldy. The walls of the chapel section are still covered in dark brown wooden paneling, which is dusty and cobwebby and graffitied. Oddly, the graffiti is mostly of a Biblical nature: "Repent ye, vipers, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." I checked the Bible and "vipers" is not supposed to be in there, but I have to agree with the literary instincts of this zealous defacer of city property - it's an improvement on the original.
There's also a brick-walled cavern on the back of the crematorium where they used to hold their latest inhabitants in the winter, when the ground was too hard to dig up. Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass both spent some time in there. I found that the unnervingest of all the unnerving things about that place. We weren't allowed to go in that room, and I must say I wasn't sorry; my enthusiasm for the macabre doesn't extend quite that far.
Much to my surprise, Frederick Douglass was actually in the crematorium at that moment. He greeted us when we came in, told us a bit about his life, about The North Star, why he came to Rochester, how he had to leave for a while because of the aftermath of John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, and the reason he returned - which, because I am a complete ninny, made me gasp aloud. To explain: a couple of years ago I took a class at our local literary center, and someone in it was working on a play about Frederick Douglass's young daughter Annie. It was excellent, beautifully written, emotionally affecting . . . and long. I never got to read the end. So when Mr. Douglass told us he had returned to Rochester because Annie had died, I was shocked and slightly indignant. I know it happened well over a century ago, but I rather thought he could've broken the news to us more gently.
As a side note, here is a great summary of Douglass's relationship with John Brown. And since we're talking about cemeteries, here's the small one at the John Brown farm:
Come to think of it, maybe I am a connoisseur of cemeteries, because I have a lot of photos of graves, I'm suddenly realizing. More photos of graves than of waffles, anyway. Well, good. One life goal accomplished.
I had hoped that this post would end up somewhere meaningful but it appears I'll have to categorize it under "pointless aside" after all. The torchlight tour was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, and damp. Possibly the strangest thing I learned was that after the Erie Canal was built and downtown became a cesspool of pollution and criminal behavior, people used to come to this cemetery to spend time in the fresh air - it was essentially a park. Those who could afford it would buy their plots well ahead of time so that they would be guaranteed a picnic spot. It's an excellent illustration of how hard it is to truly get into the mindset of people from the past. "Well, Mabel, it's a lovely afternoon, shall we get some ham sandwiches and spend some time at our future graves?" "Why, Cecil, I can't think of anything I'd enjoy more than spending the rest of the day contemplating my inevitable early death by childbirth or scrofula!"
On second thought, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand is perhaps the most appropriate graffiti for this place after all.
Photos by me.