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Stones of Mount Auburn

Friday, January 7, 2011

By no means are all of Mount Auburn Cemetery's stones perfect. Some, with all apologies to the interred, are perfectly hideous.

I don't know what the hot cross buns of stone are meant to represent, but I'm missing it.  Poor Sister. Just a hop-skip away from the elegant ammonite. I am so designing my own headstone. 

Kris and I looked long and hard for the metamorphosis stone she'd found and saved to show me. I was a little crestfallen to find the butterfly and caterpillar clearly rendered innocent of any reference to their true appearance. Still, a nice concept, even if the larva's prolegs and adult's segmentation and wing overlap are all so, so wrong. Being a Science Chimp can seriously get in the way of appreciating such things. Mostly, it enhances, but sometimes it hinders.

I was delighted to find this stone on the ridge near Spectacle Pond, where I saw my first of a lifetime of great binocular-fuls. It was a May morning, probably 1978. I was focused on my first-ever (life, in bird parlance) summer tanager, an orangey-green immature male with patches of red molting in. I was already hyperventilating when a male ruby-throated hummingbird flew into the scene and stabbed at the young tanager. Little did I know one day I'd live where summer tanagers sing lazily as they masticate yellowjackets in late June; where I'd have to swat the hummingbirds away to get in the front door. I felt my life was complete with that one vision; didn't know it could get any better. 

That's living in the moment.

Some stones are heart-grippingly beautiful in their simplicity and hidden meaning. I took an introductory humanities course with William Alfred, and this tabula mysteriosa is perfect. It's perched unprepossessingly on the flank of "Harvard Hill," where the University's nearest and dearest rest. Kris found that, too, when she found our beloved former Dean Archie Epps' stone, and noticed that everyone around him had a connection to Harvard.

 Kris remarked as we marveled that she had never seen God described as a deep but dazzling darkness--isn't He supposed to be the Light?-- anywhere but on Alfred's stone. Oh, the sun blowing its celestial trumpet, eyes crossed in effort! And that banner: DEATH IS UNDONE BY LOVE
Well, if you've ever lost someone who lives in your heart and thoughts every single day (DOD) what can you do but wipe your eyes at that?

 William Alfred, who left us in 1999, just as my bright spirit Liam entered. I like his choice of "Teacher" instead of "Professor."

For those who have trouble deciphering, it says:

There is in God (some say)
 A deep but dazzling darkness-
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

Right up there with my favorite stones in this magical place.

There is the stone of a woman who was a book illustrator in the 1960's--so clearly indicated by the stylized birds that dance across her slate. Very Leonard Baskin, by my appraisal. Very beautiful. It overlooks Spectacle Pond, where I first heard the burbling song of a ruby-crowned kinglet.

Birds are everywhere in Mount Auburn; this is why I first came here, to watch them. I could barely see the stones for the warblers, vireos and tanagers.  Now, having seen a surfeit of birds, I still come here for them, and everything. 

Oh look. Who's been here?

Last spring's robin, of course. A robin would do that.


I loved these Mt Auburn entries already but am especially moved to see Bill Alfred's memorial stone! He was for me (as for many others) a life-changing teacher, whose rich gifts as tutor were expressions of great faith and love. You bring back memories of the highlight each week of my junior and senior years: the tutorial visit to Bill at 31 Athens Street. And for so many of us he remained a friend to visit there long after graduation. Since his death a decade ago, Cambridge has never seemed quite the same.

Nick from Ottawa

Posted by Anonymous January 7, 2011 at 8:37 AM

This makes me think of a friend who did design his headstone:

Thought you might enjoy reading about his process.

Oh gosh, I love skulking around in cemeteries. You should design your stone, in all your spare time. But we don't need to be seeing it anytime soon, hokay?

As you are the science chimp, I am the word smith and could not let such a beautiful phrase go unresearched. The poem quoted on William Alfred’s headstone was written by Henry Vaughan in the 17th Century. It is called “Night.” The quote on the headstone is only a part of the very lengthy poem full of references to Christ, His death, our deaths, the beauty of this world and heaven. While a lot of it is in archaic language with much symbolism, you would probably enjoy the references to nature, particularly a phrase about the moon and glowworms!

The full verse quoted on the tombstone reads,

"There is in God (some say)A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they See not all clear; O for that night! where I in him Might live invisible and dim."

I’ve loved seeing the inscriptions in this cemetery and thanks for sending me off on a tangent to find some beautiful words which I will collect and hold dear just as you do your photographs and paintings.

For the record, William Alfred's is my second favorite poetic epitaph at the Mt. Auburn. Here's my #1 pick, by poet David McCord, who lived to be 99. The first verse was part of a collection of children's poems he wrote long ago. The second half, I'm guessing, he penned specifically as a lyrical headstone bookend:

"Blessed lord what it is to be young
To be of, to be for, be among.
Be enchanted, enthralled,
Be the caller, the called,
The singer, the song and the sung.

Blessed lord, what it is to be old
To be the teller, and not be the told.
Be serene in the wake
Of a triumph, mistake
Or life's rainbows, with no pots of gold.

I like how the first verse positively trips off your tongue, and the second demands that it be read slowly, haltingly.


Posted by Anonymous January 8, 2011 at 11:07 AM

I loved this little walk through the cemetery and with it a bit of happy-sad discovery. My mother passed away last month and soon my sisters and I will be designing a stone for her. "Death is undone by love" is so perfect. Thanks again for your lovely blog that touches on so much of life, Julie.

I loved this little walk through the cemetery and with it a bit of happy-sad discovery. My mother passed away last month and soon my sisters and I will be designing a stone for her. "Death is undone by love" is so perfect. Thanks again for your lovely blog that touches on so much of life, Julie.

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OMG Zick, I hadn't thought of Archie epps for years. I used to see him in savenours when Hugh and I lived across from the wine and cheese cask. It always gave me the giggles to meet him outside his office.

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