Sunday, November 8, 2009

Visiting the dead

Today I visited an unmarked piece of ground. The photo accompanying this post is of my daypack on the ground in Mt. Olive Cemetery on the west side of Chicago. The day pack is lying in about the spot I think where a great-uncle of mine was buried back in 1917. The grave is unmarked in one of the oldest areas of the cemetery, way in the back almost against a fence that separates the Mt. Olive Cemetery from another cemetery. I had to guess as to the location.

What sent me to this cemetery was a request from one of my sisters. She had some information on this great-uncle, Frank Harrold. I knew a little about Frank as well. I knew that he occasionally traveled as a hobo, hopping trains in the early 1900s. He fell off a train one time, and I believe a rail car ran over his arm. It had to be amputated. A journalist from the Chicago Tribune interviewed Frank at the hospital while he was recovering. That was 1905 when Frank, I think, was 19. That will be my next endeavor, to find a microfiche with that 1905 article.

My sister sent me a copy of the receipt for Frank’s grave, which included the plot number. It was $10 for the plot and another $2 for the interment. The total bill was for $40.50, paid on Aug. 31, 1917. I don’t know how Frank died. It might have been in the war, or it might have been from the flu. I went into the cemetery office where a man kindly looked up the plot number, found it on a cemetery map, gave me directions to the spot, plus listed the names of several of the graves to either side of the spot.

You see, he told me, it might not be marked. That’s one of the oldest areas of the cemetery. You ought to be able to find a few of these names, he said, so you can locate this grave.

I drove to the very edge of the cemetery, past a few other gatherings of folks who were there for burials, others there to visit graves. When I found the section the caretaker had directed me to, I saw mostly grass with just a few old headstones. None of the headstones had any of the names the caretaker had given me. I wandered about to make sure I was in the correct area; I seemed to be as the few headstones that were there had similar dates of 1915, 1916 and 1917. That’s when I found these round, concrete cylinders embedded in the earth, each with a number on them; the plot numbers. But alas, some of these were missing as well. Frank was buried in spot number 195. I found one of these cylinders with a 189, then a 190, a 191 – good, the numbers were going in the correct direction. I was in the right spot. Then 192, but that was it, just a broad expanse of open ground, no more cylinders.

I then paced off the distance between each cylinder, which was about one good stride. They packed them in close back there. And so I counted three more strides beyond number 192. That must be it, a bit of ground covered with leaves. I brushed the leaves away with my hand, looking for any sign of a number cylinder, but there was none. I laid my daypack on the ground in that spot, placed the copy of the plot receipt on my day pack, and took several photos in various directions.

And that’s when the thought occurred to me about what that piece of ground was all about. It’s just a piece of ground. And if my great-uncle’s remains were under that turf, it would just be bones. Not Frank, because he was gone. And this spot of land was just that, a bit of dirt with some spotty grass, covered with decaying leaves. Was there ever a headstone to mark this spot as the final resting place for Frank Harrold’s remains? Something told me, probably not. Did anyone come to his grave during those first years after his death? Was there a wreath ever laid across it? Again, something told me probably not.

Over against a fence I saw a pile of concrete cylinders. I looked at them, pulled some of them out of the dirt where they had laid for so long they were partially submerged in the turf. The numbers on the ends had almost completely eroded away; none of them had the number 195. But why were they so carelessly discarded against the fence? Were they ever properly placed in the ground to mark the correct plot, only to be removed later, perhaps because they damaged a lawnmower?

I looked upward at the leaves that were still in the trees and I thought about what the Buddha said about questions; that most are like the leaves in the trees above our heads, so many and most irrelevant. Just because a question is asked doesn’t mean it warrants a response.

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