Warren and I dedicated Wednesday to visiting five Austin cemeteries. I love, love, love cemeteries and have been photographing them informally, around the country (and later around the world) probably since 1988. Cemeteries have a lot going for them. Unlike, say, SXSW, you rarely run into a lot of people, unless you count the permanent residents. And while—if it is true our hair continues to grow post-mortem—surely those occupants now sport facial hair configurations wacky enough to put even the most facially hairy hipster to shame, happily we’ll never know. Also, they don't offer commentary and judgement, though they do offer a pretty direct reminder that it is definitely okay-- and really actually better than okay-- to not check email constantly.
So, yeah, a nice quiet place for a cheap date. I love the monuments we erect to the dead-- just last week I was checking out Ann Richards' especially badass headstone, which quite resembles her famous hairdo. I am a huge fan of the super simple as well as the wildly ornate. Massive phallic memorials amuse me. Tiny infant tombstones make me sad.
|This cemetery has to be the smallest in Austin, maybe in Texas. You have to park on the shoulder of 183 and dash across the feeder road to reach it.|
Taking in all the tributes, I am always reminded of two headstones-- one of which I never saw with my own eyes, and neither of which was to be found in a graveyard. The first of these I spotted in the dumpy rental house my old friend Chuck Dean, American (that's what he called himself) lived in on Duval, back in the 90s. Chuck is sadly no longer with us (fuck you heroin). But when he was alive, he lived a very interesting life. Without comment or hullabaloo, he had placed in his living room a small marker upon which there was just one word, but it spoke volumes: DADDY. I don't recall asking Chuck for details about it. Besides, I had a story of my own to impose on that polished rock.
The other headstone, the one I never saw… well dang, I just gave away the punchline. So years ago, one of my editors told me the story of how, when she was a teen, one year she saw beneath the Christmas tree a big package, placed there weeks before the actual holiday. Curious for clues, she tried picking it up to shake it. Wouldn't budge. Birthday of Jesus arrives and she tears away the wrapping to reveal, yes, a headstone featuring her birth date with a blank for her death date. Her mother gave her this, announcing, "I knew you'd never get around to it." (I guess it could've been creepier-- if there had been a death date included, too, as hunch or warning.)
|Inside the tiniest cemetery, Warren attempts to straighten up a grave marker.|
Warren and I find there is no end to a game we call Cemetery Math, which allows you to figure out how old someone was when they died (don’t forget to factor in if they died before their birthday to come up with the proper answer). You can also whistle through your teeth at the age differences in the May-December marriages. And then there is the math of figuring out how many years ago these folks walked the streets of Austin—some of them well over a hundred years ago.
Beyond all those numbers, there are plenty of pun opportunities, abundant gallows humor offerings, reading between the lines (e.g. when it says He was a beloved brother, son, uncle and friend, this very likely means gay, am I right?) For language fanatics like us, a decent number of typos offers the additional joy of discovery. But then there really isn’t whiteout or delete when working in granite and, depending how far along you’ve gotten and how small your future audience will be, what’s an occasional oops here and there?
|A Mexican cemetery in South Austin on Circle S Road. Really beautiful and bursting with colorful memorials.|
There doesn't seem to be much information out there about Austin cemeteries, something I already knew from past trips. This didn't stop me from trying though. So when we got to the Greenwood Cemetery, a relatively small place over on 183 near the airport, I decided to whip out my smart phone (when will I ever learn?) and see what I could find. As I suspected, there was not a hell of a lot. But something did catch my eye. It was this quote:
And your oh, so nutty chocolate covering. You're not like the others. You like the same things I do: Wax paper. Boiled football leather. Dog breath. We're not hitchhiking anymore. We're riding!
"Whoa!" I said to Warren. "Check it out! There is a tombstone here that says…" and I read him the quote. This excited us both. I love people that carry a lifetime of wackiness with them to the end. (I myself imagine a headstone that reads: Skinny At Last.)
The search was on. Another clue I found from the same forum discussing Greenwood said: Lies just in front of runway 17R at KAUS.
Well we walked around that cemetery for over an hour, first together, then dividing in the hopes of conquering. Around and around I looped, looking at fronts and backs of markers, looking for markers that might be flat on the ground, hidden in tall grass, trying to find on Google maps where 17R runway was so I could figure out which markers faced it.
We were stumped. I got out my phone a few more times-- I'm usually a pretty good researcher-- and tried typing in various combinations of keywords. Finally, after lots and lots of searching in the real world and in the ether, I decided to plug the actual quote into Google (duh, why didn't I think of that first?) and what came back to me was even more delightful.
That quote? It's from Ren & Stimpy! Another clue! The grave marker would have to be relatively recent, at least not from the 1800's. I eagerly shouted the good news to Warren. Our enthusiasm renewed, we looped around again.
I'm not sure when it occurred to me, but at some point, I went back to the original forum. I looked a little closer, squinting through my polarized glasses past the glare of the blinding sun beating down on the tiny screen. And then it dawned on me. By now, Warren was sitting in the car, taking a little break.
"Um, I think maybe I figured it out," I said.
"You know what a sig file is?" I said (worried, just a little, that this sounded too much like sig heil).
"Huh? Oh, a signature, file?"
Let me cut to the chase here and just say that some nameless person posted on a Austin Cemetery Bulletin Board simply noting that there is a cemetery facing a runway. This person never said there is a grave marker with a Ren & Stimpy quote on it. I just jumped to that conclusion. The truth is that the nameless person simply had a Ren & Stimpy quote as part of his/her sig file. That's all. The marker we sought existed only in our hopeful minds.
Warren says not to worry-- he's going to outlive me and make me a headstone that conveys to all future visitors that I made him wander for hours looking for a epitaph that does not exist involving wax paper and boiled football leather.
Thank you, dear. And please, please-- include the entire quote. And make it face a runway.
|There is life in the cemetery.|
|I really dig it that people still honor the dead. Feels like a lost art, almost. But some folks still visit gravesides and leave lovely decorations.|
|That's a butterfly flying over the redbud. Lucky shot.|