Thursday, August 27, 2009

Final class reflection on Spring Grove

As my title states, this will be my final class reflection on Spring Grove; but it will not be the final reflection on Spring Grove. And, I have numerous photos that I am editing and organizing and I will be posting them. Through this class, I have been introduced to a whole new dimension of Spring Grove and a view of life from a different angle.

A cemetery can be many things: a burial ground where the dead are buried awaiting the coming of the Messiah (if you are Jewish) or the second coming of Christ (if you are Christian); a place of remembrance for loved ones who have died; a monument to how the deceased is remembered or wanted to be remembered; a beautiful landscape or garden to uplift the spirits of the living; a visible reminder of the history of a place or a group of people; and depending on the day, it can be many other things as well. Spring Grove, for example, is not just a memorial garden to the dead; it is a great place to get fit by walking (with ever changing scenery as you walk), a park (though with a lot of rules of behavior – and don’t disturb the geese), an arboretum (where you can see and touch and smell woody plants in a natural setting, not in a pot), a garden with grand seasonal floral displays, an outdoor art museum, an architectural and historical palate and it is free for us to enjoy.

Many cemeteries seem to just be places to plant the dead, get the body off the surface of the earth as required by law, and forget about it. The property is barely maintained and nearly forgotten until the next burial.

Others are memory gardens. My brother-in-law was born and raised in a small town in southeastern Indiana. Families still place (silk) flowers on all their family gravesites several times a year, so there is always something displayed that shows that someone remembers. They don’t have to trim around the graves anymore, the cemetery does that, but they still make sure that those who have joined the Church Triumphant are remembered. (I think some people obsess about it and try to have a better display than “the Jones”, but that’s my opinion.)

Some are the focus of area history. The Lebanon (Ohio) Pioneer Cemetery is preserved and visited by primary and middle school scholars as part of their local and state history requirements. It is about two blocks from the “new” Lebanon Cemetery, which is in the “new” garden style with curving roads and strategic plantings and nice shade trees. It is also part of the history fieldtrips as it was organized in the 1850’s

Having time to explore the different areas and aspects of Spring Grove and having the time to absorb the experiences has been wonderful. Our first walkabout with our assigned sections to explore in detail gave us something small enough to comprehend and a good basis for further explorations. My partners and I chose to walk to our assigned sections, 45 and 46. Climbing the hill up the white line on foot gave us, I think, a better perspective of place than driving. It also gave us a chance to absorb the early evening atmosphere – the decreasing light filtering through the trees, the quiet of the evening, the somber effect of the drooping, leaning foliage. Further walkabouts built upon those first night impressions.

The family histories that can be read from the grave markers and the stories that are told by the iconography on the monuments are some of the best things that I will take away from this class. I see cemeteries as places for the living. I don’t believe that the dead are there in the ground; what is left after death is an empty shell that reminds us of the living person that we remember. The ritual of a burial service and the ritual of interment are to comfort the living. I believe that God really does sort it all out. The things we do here for our deceased loved one are to take care of those of us who have yet to join the Choir Invisible. Societal rituals are very important. They allow public expressions of grief, of hope, of remembrance and socially approved means of honoring the dead and allow us to say goodbye…for a time.

The founders of Spring Grove were wise men. They and their succeeding directors have created a landscape that transcends a mere burial ground. I think you’d have to have the heart of stone not to feel better for walking Spring Grove. There is spiritual healing that can come from being outside in nature, if we are open to the experience. These early Cincinnatians were opening the way for all Cincinnati citizens to have that experience. And I’m very glad that they did.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Spring Grove in the evening

The evening shadows lengthening and gradually withdrawing light from the landscape.
(So many images...)

Dexter Mausoleum & more of the older landscape

It's like viewing a miniature European cathedral. The surrounding views are wonderful, though they had to give up the island site. I think this site on the bank of the lake is just as good a location.

The amount of money it took to build this, even though they didn't have the money, or maybe the time, to complete it, is just mind boggling. It really is a shame that they didn't have the forethought, or the money, to pay for perpetual care. But then, how many people with this kind of ego believe that the family will die out or they will run out of money?

This is part of the cemetery that I like the best. An old, established landscape with artistic elements to stroll through and photo ops at every turn. And the quiet can be very soothing and restful.

I think it's remarkable how seldom I've heard power equipment running when I've been in Spring Grove. To keep the property looking as nicely as is does, I know that they are mowing and cutting up trees and prunings.

Reflections on "A Fine & Private Place"

Peter S. Beagle's "A Fine & Private Place" is not a novel that I would ordinarily pick up to read. Though I have enjoyed reading other novels written as "magical realism", I would not intentionally choose to read one set in a cemetery.

I am not sure whether I liked this book or not. I know that I got a lot more out of the book from our class discussion about it than I got from my reading of the book. My classmates brought up many different aspects of the book that cam from their personal experiences. After all, all of one's life is seen from one's own perspective unless we communicate and relate to other people.

I did not see this as the typical "ghost story" or the typical "romance novel" and it is not creepy or sappy. As a fellow classmates said, the characters complement each other: the reclusive, half-alive Rebeck and the vital Mrs. Klapper; Laura, who never had a life, and Michael, who threw away his life; even the noisy, busy city and the quiet, timeless cemetery complement each other.

Reading this book while meeting in a cemetery for a class about the cemetery was a very good match. It caused me to relate the cemetery in the book to the landscape of Spring Grove. I could picture the cemetery, Rebeck, Mrs. Klapper, Laura, and Michael in my mind's eye as I was reading. I could visualize the cemetery streets, monuments, and plantings and could feel the quiet, peaceful atmosphere.

I see this book first as a love story, in an unique location, with two love stories evolving over the length of the novel: Rebeck and Mrs. Klapper; Michael and Laura. And these are two very different kinds of love.

In the first love story, Mrs. Klapper had lost her balance wheel with the death of Morris and Rebeck had lost his center when he felt that his purpose in life was lost. Finding each other brought Rebeck back to the verge of living and gave him renewed purpose and brought Mrs. Klapper into balance again. This is a romantic love. I enjoyed following the development of the relationship between Rebeck and Mrs. Klapper. I wanted them to become involved. They seemed like two people who deserved a second chance at living and they seemed very real to me.

The second love story, of Laura and Michael, is a very different kind of love. In this post-life state, there can be no physical love, so this is love for the sake of love, love beyond the physical, a forever love. It was more difficult to become involved with the romance of Michael and Laura. It felt contrived to me, as if the purpose of that part of the story was for the author to make a point. I could see several points that he may be trying to make, that it is never too late to commit to someone, or love is beyond death, or nothing is as important as relationships.

This is also a story of transformations: Rebeck transformed from living a half-life in the cemetery to the beginning of a new life in the living world; Mrs. Klapper transformed from a widow who had lost her focus to a completed person through her relationship with Rebeck; Michael transformed after death from a shallow, self-centered character who threw his life away to a caring being who embraced his existence in love for Laura; and Laura transformed from one who never had a meaningful life to one who finds meaning in the afterlife in her love for Michael. And the cemetery is a quiet, private island surrounded by the larger city.

My favorite character is the Raven. He has a sense of humor and a sense of the ridiculous. I really enjoyed when he had his snit-fit and decided he was never going to fly again. I think he is the most complete character in the book. He is himself and everything he does stays in character.

The only nod to religion is a turning point in the story. When it was proven that Michael caused his own death by ingesting poison, his body could no longer be buried in "consecrated ground" and had to be moved to another cemetery with unconsecrated ground. (I think it interesting that my classmates did not connect this point with religion, though it is a Roman Catholic tenet that a suicide may not be buried in consecrated ground.) This plot twist came from nowhere. As the spirit has to stay in the same cemetery as the body (in the "rules" of the story), Laura and Michael will be separated forever unless her body can be moved also. The plot to move Laura's body is instigated by Laura and involves Rebeck, the night caretakes, and Mrs. Klapper. It is the final impetus that gets Rebeck out of the cemetery and will reunite Laura with Michael.

I think Peter Beagle would have written a different book as an older man. It may not have been as innocent and beguiling a story. Perhaps the side stories would be more fully developed, such as the youth waiting at his tombstone for his visitor or Morris and the large edifice he never wanted. There may have been more spirits in residence.

Thought I do not plant to read the book again, but I would like to see and hear the musical based on "A Fine & Private Place".

Friday, August 14, 2009

Memorial Mausoleum at Spring Grove

Touring this building was an interesting experience. For a new building (corner stone laid in 1963), it has the feeling of being in existence for a long time. The stained glass is wonderful - and seeing the 3 different types of stained glass - leaded glass, glass in sand, and ground glass with ground precious stones - with the different effects that they cast was fascinating. Stained glass in evening light casts a mystical, other-worldly feel. It did have the odor of an ancient church basement or cellar with a little incense thrown in. This building could easily become a "high-rise" mausoleum if they utilize the tower - good use of space - more interments per square foot.
The funerary urns on display is something that I have never seen before. I had a home-health patient that had her husband's urn on the mantle piece, but to have special cases to display in the mausoleum to display urns is an interesting concept. For whom are they displayed?
Ryan's point, in our discussion after touring the mausoleum, that Spring Grove is a business and has to market itself and make money to perpetuate this wonderful setting, is so very true. I have been absorbing the atmosphere, the plantings, the monuments, the experience of evening...even though it is a place where time has no meaning, there are still the bills to pay to keep Spring Grove intact and a business to run.
In one of the last side aisles that we toured, I saw the marker with a name that I recognized. I was a member of the choir that sang for her funeral mass....

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pilgrimage to the Norman Chapel

Norman Chapel at Spring Grove – 30 July 2009

I have had a desire to see the inside of the Norman Chapel for years – every since I moved to Cincinnati to take up my first professional nursing job - see it as a visitor, not as a funeral attendee.
The style and the mood are very reminiscent of old parish churches that I have visited in Great Britain. One can almost feel the prayers and supplications rising from the space. It is obvious to me that this is a space to provide comfort to the living and the grieving. I am one who finds comfort in rituals and in these old formal spaces. The stained glass window in the east end and the woodcarvings in the north and south transept doors all project healing and renewal. What wonderful stone carving! In this small-scale space, we can see up close how exquisite and individual are these carvings. The skill required and the countless hours to carve one capital are almost unimaginable in this day of electronic and robotic machines. The wooden ceiling arches remind me of hammer beams used is Great Britain to span wide interior spaces. I understand why Spring Grove management wanted the Chapel beside the road, but imagine other areas around that landscape where the Chapel could be sited: reflected in a lake, or on the crest of a low hill so the people looked up to it (low hill to spare the horses), or in the center of a clearing of majestic trees.

I do want to redo the plantings that surround the Chapel. (I realize that most people do not automatically analyze the landscape and mentally replant it, but I do. Either it feels "right" or it needs help to make it achieve its purpose.) Imagine plantings that frame the building and lead you to the entrances.

The Chapel gates are very ornate and very beautiful. The arrival, through these gates, of the hearse carrying the casket containing your loved one would elevate the occasion - an earthly representation of the gates of heaven opening to receive him or her. Also, the closing of the gates could be the demarcation between the living and the dead.

Another experience that transforms - but all experience does that, don't you think?