Island Notes: City on a Hill

Mon, 02/01/2010 - 5:04am

01/30/10 - Even in the imagined sanctuary of a beautiful old house on a village common in northeastern Connecticut the news of destruction of the Island cemetery reached me. It came via — of all things — Facebook (not mine); we went on-line and found images on the Channel 6 website.

Stones were toppled, simply pushed over, a very few broken, as though an ill wind of epic proportions had rushed through a corridor in the cemetery, leaving a swath of the wreckage that we see on the news in cities or long abandoned country graveyards. The damage appeared to be limited to the section that is west of the entrance road, where things seem less left to chance, where the stones graduate toward sameness and lots are better defined with initialed cornerposts.

There was no view, in the photos, of my grandparents’ stone. On the boat back someone asked me if any of the gravestones were mine, in that broad way we claim past generations. I did not know.

When I went up to the cemetery I admit I looked first to three graves, family sites in the vicinity of the photos and found them all intact, with the guilty relief of the survivor. An older, more fragile stone outside the sphere of confusion was fine as well, my first and worst fear allayed.

There are cross roads in that older of the new or newer of the old section of the cemetery, roads that show on a particular aerial map but have long been grassy, ones you do not realize are there unless you already know they are there. I usually park in one near my grandparents’ grave, easy to find, flanked by towering yews, and walk around as I did this afternoon.

It does not look so bad at first, a stone or two separated from its base, lying on the cushion of earth softened by the thaw. Then there is one more, and another and another still, individual dominos, fallen soldiers on the ground. A few did not separate and the whole marker is upended, leaving a dark depression in earth that has not experienced sunlight for a century. There are more and more for the looking.

The ground was soft but the wind cold, colder with each toppled stone, strangers, neighbors, people long and lately dead.

The cemetery is a secular but a sacred place. It ties us to the history of the communities who preceded us, be our connection by blood or adoption. It is difficult, it may be impossible, to overstate the magnitude of this particular crime, against individuals, against families, against a place where people have gathered to mourn and remember for over three hundred and twenty years.

Today, we know nothing of who or why, amidst speculation as high as the sky, as wide as the sea. The scope of the damage makes it unthinkable, unimaginable, unbelievable even with photographs to confirm the memory.

The cemetery, our own City on a Hill, has always been a place of enchantment, holding stones lacking uniformity even within the same lot, bearing names alien to our time; Philamin Galusha, Icivilli, Darius. It is enhanced by an awareness of the sheer physical accomplishment it embodies, a steep slope terraced long before we had today’s array of earth moving equipment. The stones bear tribute, noting offices held, the particular spot one young man drowned.

When I was a child, Sunday afternoons we went to the cemetery, my father’s sea-green pick-up truck loaded with clippers and a sickle and the lawn mower, narrow and manual, a spiral of blades revolving as the wheels turned. The town did not attach perpetual care to the cost of every lot and most that were tended were cared for by family and friends.

We sometimes went in off Center Road, the “Cemetery Street” of the older maps. There is still a wide path straight up the hill but there is also a less obvious unused track winding around the side of the land. It passes a Rathbone plot, one terraced and held in place by cement slabs, reached by cement steps, and another family site, surrounded by pipe walls, floored with slabs of concrete which long ago settled unevenly.

There used to be more of these, self-contained little island within the then vast cemetery, a compromise between the private plots down lanes, behind houses, and the anonymity of the larger place.

There is a running history in the cemetery, from the earliest, simplest stones, through the grand monuments of the late 1800s, the slabs of the twentieth century, a diversity that years of uneven regulations encouraged. There is more trimming, today, fewer of the wild things that managed to grow so many years ago, but there is, even on the days of the saddest funerals, no lingering shroud of death.

Older stones, some of the very oldest, fell over, every now and then some minor infraction would occur. The news is reporting fifty grave markers pushed over Monday night, we do not yet know why.

Everyone one hopes it is someone else, from somewhere else.

This is the harsh underside of Block Island in the winter, the one about which no one talks. Sometime during a night of rain and wind whatever demons drive people to do terrible deeds were unloosed. The headlines are filled over the years with discussions of the deer problem, the greatest threat to Western civilization, but whenever this matter of the darkness of life in a small, isolated place, especially in winter, is raised it is quietly but effectively silenced.

If everyone’s hope is realized that should still be remembered.