Visiting the Dead

Last weekend, I went to the cemetery in Concord where prominent families used to be buried, back in the 1700s and 1800s. There’s a narrow path there called Writer’s Row. It goes up a hill, and as you walk along it, this is what you pass:

The grave of Henry David Thoreau.

Can you see the things people have left? Including letters about how much his writing has meant to them. (Of course I didn’t read his private correspondence. But some of the letters had been left open, and you could see what people had written him.)

The grave of Louisa May Alcott.

Among the things left for her were an orange, a kazoo, and a lifesaver. (Yes, the small candy. I wonder if it was meant to be a metaphor? It was still in its plastic wrapper, as though someone had wanted it to be preserved.)

The grave of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

This one was the grandest, but not my favorite. I liked the smaller gravestones better, and there were more things left at them. I think it’s easy to respect Emerson, but easier perhaps to love Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne.

The grave of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I mention this one last although it was not the last in sequence, because this was the one I went back to. I sat by the grave, tore a sheet of paper out of my Moleskine notebook, and wrote him a letter. (I always travel with pen and paper, of course. Doesn’t every writer?) I tried to make it relatively formal, so he wouldn’t be shocked by my modern tone. I called him “Dear Mr. Hawthorne.” I thanked him for creating Beatrice Rappaccini, told him that I had written a story about her and that she was a character in my novel, and said that I hoped he wouldn’t mind. I hope he doesn’t . . .

We’re always in conversation with other writers, aren’t we? And some of them, perhaps most of them, are dead. It’s nice, sometimes, to write them a letter. (In case you were wondering, my letter is the one on the left.)

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6 thoughts on “Visiting the Dead

  1. I love old cemeteries. Thanks so much for the pictures of this one. A family member is a rosarian — a rose historian — and old cemeteries are his best place for finding heritage roses. Of course, I scoop up a bit of the dirt, once I ask permission.

    And, yes, the conversations that span centuries, decades, years among writers are such a gift.

  2. I would have read the letters. If the dead want anything, and I suspect they do not, it would be to be known, and those letter writers too. Living or dead, we want to make our marks, and to have them seen. However, if a letter were in a sealed envelope, I wouldn’t break the seal :-)

  3. This is amazing, I’m imagining correspondence with a writer long gone and it’s so intriguing. I’m pondering who I would write to.
    There is also something so moving about cemeteries. They invoke so many different feelings and they alter from person to person.
    A very interesting post.

  4. So glad to read a post of yours again. When I was twelve I lived for a year in Lewiston, Idaho and on my way to school there was a pioneer cemetery. I’d go there
    to sit and think. All the old gravestones told a story; infants were buried here, and
    pioneers you could imagine in their bonnets and aprons, and what kind of horses the
    men rode. It was a serene and good place to visit.

  5. When I was very young (16 or 17) my brother and I visited Oxford. We made a special effort to find J.R.R. Tolkien’s grave. It never occurred to me at that time to write him a letter, but after reading your post I realize that it would have been the most natural thing in the world to do, given that his writing has influenced me so much.

    The fact that we were with two aunts (who, I suspect, thought us half mad to begin with) was not really conducive to such an act back then, but if I am ever there again I think I shall pen him a missive. I’m sure the Oxfordian groundskeepers will not let it litter the grave for long, but the spirit of the act is more important than groundskeeping.

    Thank you for the inspiration, Theodora!

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