Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Memento Mori, in Stone

And so the threatened photodump from my summer vacation begins.

Maybe ten years ago I happened on Scott Sanders' In Limestone Country in the "midwest" section of Bookman's. Hmmm, nifty. Over the years the book metamorphosed from an interesting read to a pilgrimage guidebook on my trips back to southern Indiana, which happens to be underlain by the finest building stone the planet has to offer. Indiana limestone built the Empire State Building, the National Cathedral, and several statehouses across the country. The book talks about the history of quarrying in two counties southwest of Indianapolis, but, best of all, also describes quirky places and monuments you might miss if you weren't looking for them.

So I've been looking for them.

Past trips have taken me to the Empire Hole between Oolitic and Needmore, where, if you took the Empire State Building apart and laid it back in, block by block, you could fill the hole back up to ground level. The edges of the great hole are lined with trees, and the walls stairstep starkly down to the green water that's filled most of the yawning opening in the intervening decades since the rock was cut out. All the old quarries have similarly been converted by time and rainfall to overgrown swimming pools, deserted except for the birds and weeds, and everywhere, everywhere, stacks of extra or rejected stone piled up like so many giant babies' building blocks.

Generations of men spent their lives in the quarries working the stone. When they died they were buried in shallow graves right on top of it, with a limestone monument placed above them, sandwiched for the rest of forever between layers of gray stone. The past trips also led me through tiny Oolitic, with its limestone statue of Joe Palooka downtown, to Bedford, the seat of Lawrence County and the absolute center of the Indiana quarrying industry now. Specifically, I went to the cemetery in the middle of town to see its amazing hand-carved gravestones from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the cutters were honored with monuments of limestone rather than the modern granite, obelisks and tablets but also lifelike tree trunks covered with carved vines and ferns so detailed as to be identifiable to species. Doves perched on bouquets of stone flowers. A full-sized golfer standing with his bag of clubs. A carver's workbench covered with tools, all preserved in stone by the man's grieving workmates, a stone snapshot of his bench on the day he died.

Those were past trips. This time around I was with a bigger group that had been promised a geode hunt, but the flooded creeks and my inability to remember exactly where we found the good ones a long time ago made that a bust. We still made it to a Limestone Country landmark I hadn't found before, Hopkins Cemetery, a tiny burying ground perched on a peninsula of unstripped land surrounded on three sides by steep quarry walls, south of Needmore, where old Indiana 37 has been chopped in half by a quarry, directly north of the Empire Hole. Graves at the northern edge have begun tumbling over the side.

It's still an active cemetery, but it's old. We walked around quietly looking at the stones. It didn't take long to notice that a lot of families lost a lot of kids at very young ages, or that even this small community had stark disparities in wealth. (if you'd like to see details, all images can be embiggened with a click)

A finely worked scroll and a verse for Joseph Massey.

A lamb for Zella.

A bouquet and an unconscious dove for Hershel.

An obelisk for a newborn.

But this one is the one that got me, a simple uneven tablet that was carved with an unpracticed but loving hand, for Kenneth Dale Moffatt, dead at nine. Click to enlarge the photo and you can make out, in the upper right, "Asleep in Jesus," with the J carved backwards, the dates of the boy's too-short life awkwardly squeezed at the bottom under his name, and in the top left corner, in what my stupid sentimental mother's heart sees as a gesture of love and hope, and perhaps a memory of happier times, a sun rendered like a child's drawing.

A stone for Kenneth Moffatt.

It wasn't sadness that quieted our steps as we wended through the gravestones raised by the families of the rich and the poor so long ago so much as the contemplation you can't escape when you come to a place like this. Must've been a hell of a life, my brother said softly as he examined the row of stones set by a family that had lost five children before the age of two. So many kids, so many women dying young, so many men who barely made it past fifty before silicosis or blocks unexpectedly breaking free of their lines caught up with them. But they kept on. And they poured their regard for each other into the stone they carved to set up in memory.

Many of the inscriptions have been rendered unreadable now by decades of rain and wind; limestone's softness makes it excellent for carving but not so great when it comes to permanent memorials. But it's that failing that makes it the best medium, I suppose, for carving out initials to mark peoples' brief stay here, the eyeblink of their lives above the stone. The grass gets mowed and the weeds get pulled and flowers get left even as the names fade from the faces of the monuments, toppled obelisks are carefully propped back up, and the graves sliding out of the north end of the cemetery are, I hope, occasionally grabbed back from the precipice.

1 comment:

Damien said...

Some of the most well done and most poignant mortuary archaeological studies I have read have come from modern and historic cemetery sites. It still amazes me that all cultures across time and space have used death to reflect so many aspects of life in so many similar ways...regardless of the diversity of methods used...

All that is to say, I really feel ya' I still wish my 3 deceased grandparents were buried instead of cremated and scattered so I could visit...