By Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
October 10, 2007
I BRAKE FOR CEMETERIES
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Actually, my Sunday morning visit to Books-A-Million was to peruse travel books and literary tours in England, Ireland and Wales, until my eyes caught a thin book with a title so long it almost ran off the spine.
I was getting a crick in my neck trying to read it sideways on the shelf so slipped it out of its place and read what must vie for the longest book title on record:
"Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die? Fitting Ends and Final Resting Places of the Famous, Infamous, and Noteworthy," by Tod Benoit.
It wasn't what I was looking for, of course, and instead of pondering whether or not death is truly a traveling experience, I decided to consider my find serendipity at its most obvious. I had found something I really wanted while looking for something else. My friends laugh at my keen interest and threaten to get me a bumper sticker proclaiming, "I BRAKE FOR CEMETERIES."
As I walked toward a comfortable armchair under a three-way lamp, I wondered where I would have filed this book if I were in charge. Religion? Spirituality? The Afterlife? Estate Planning? Nothing seemed to fit. Burial grounds might qualify as the holding place for a journey of sorts yet in a way we can't understand, much less explain.
Settling in, I let go of my query and open the thin book. After a brief mention of the life and times of celebrity, the final resting place was noted and a directional map to the site was included. The writing is well researched, breezy and informal. Along with a map to the grave, the author adds, "Don't worry about finding it, there are signs all over."
Last month, I was in New York when they unveiled the new street sign at 58th Street and Eighth Avenue, now "Jerry Orbach Way." For 20 years Orbach lived there and now because of this book I've learned he's buried in Trinity Church Cemetery at Broadway and Wall St. That puts him a stone's throw from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who's been at rest there for over 200 years. Although Hamilton's wound was a mortal one from his famous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in New Jersey, he actually died in New York City. The following was written about the reaction to his death:
"The outpouring of public grief at the news of Hamilton's death was immense. Weeping masses crowded the front yard of the house in which he died. A pall fell over the whole city as it forgot Hamilton's errant ways and mourned the loss of an esteemed and beloved citizen. Messages of condolence arrived from all over the country and all over Europe." About Jerry Orbach: "A quintessential New Yorker, he personified his city's well-worn but implacable edge, embodying the Big Apple like few other actors. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called Orbach 'a friend to all New Yorkers' and 'a devoted ambassador of the city.'" They dimmed the lights on every theater on Broadway for one minute in a tribute to one of New York's own, modern-day, esteemed and beloved citizens.
And now these gentlemen share the same city plot of land where they rest eternally, gone but not forgotten.
I don't go out of my way to visit cemeteries but if they come my way, I do stop in. I don't have to look for a particular grave, but the dates on the graves take me back to the times they lived. For instance, when my daughter and I were on a road trip through Massachusetts one year I was musing about "The shot heard 'round the world" and the American Revolution.
Just then, we were passing an old cemetery. This was surely one I wanted to visit. It was very hilly and huge boulders were in and around the tombstones. Dates were visible, just barely, yet I could read names. Most were young people by today's longevity standards, but some were born in the mid-1700s and died in 1792 and so on. I was standing six feet above the final remains of someone who could conceivably have heard that shot heard 'round the world. Again, I was transfixed. It was a woman so I can't fantasize that it was a Minuteman - much to my daughter's relief - but that's how my attention is drawn.
On that same trip, we were in Amherst, Mass., and passed by poet Emily Dickinson's home. Nothing else was noteworthy about the street, just the small sign. We stopped, took the tour and I enjoyed the moments spent among her "stuff." Might as well visit her grave a few streets over, we thought. Gardeners were working in the cemetery nearby and we asked where her grave might be. "Over the hill, there's a lot of them, not sure which one you want."
True enough, "our" Emily Dickinson was in a family plot with cousin Emily, niece Emily, Aunt Emily, etc. but hers was the one with the wrought iron fence enclosing it.
In the book I was scanning, I saw the name Alvin York, known to us as Sergeant York, the infantryman played by the grteat Gary Cooper in the movie of the same name. In the book's introduction, we're told of his hardscrabble life on a Tennessee farm and his unforgettable heroism in World War I. Later, though, he ran into problems with the IRS because of unreported royalties from the movie.
He was old, ill, and broke, yet was still being hassled by the IRS. President John F. Kennedy said that situation was a national disgrace, and with York Relief Funds (initiated by then-Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn), $100,000 was paid to the IRS and $30,000 put in trust for York's family's needs.
That information alone made my sojourn at the bookstore find a happy ending for this armchair traveler. Street maps of England will have to wait for another day.
Visit longtime AR Correspondent Constance Daley at www.skylinetoshoreline.com.