An Afternoon With Ghosts

Why do I feel myself drawn to cemeteries?  Certainly,with the passing of my Dad, they  carry more resonance and profundity. But they are truly extraordinary places in their own right.

In the middle of the work-a-day world of cities, cemeteries seemingly sit in repose, though I often think, in actuality, they are  squirming to contain the burst of monuments (and egos) within. Living in San Francisco, with the exception of the Presidio and a tiny plot at Mission Dolores, one must travel out of town to visit a cemetery. And while Colma is a veritable cemetery mall, for my money, there is perhaps no more sublime a spot than Mountain View Cemetery in North Oakland.  Mountain View, as the name implies, has  a view, though not of  mountains, but the lower lying East Bay and San Francisco beyond. And this is appropriate, as many who lie here had so much to do with the formation of these places. It is filled with great monuments; there are obelisks, temple minutiae, pyramids, brooding angels , and delirious nymphs

I had some time to kill last week, and ventured through Mountain View. I had also hoped to also see the glorious Chapel of Chimes by Julia Morgan, but it was closed. It was all a rather dizzying experience, on the one hand marveling at the edifices and monuments, on the other, it bringing up much that has occurred the last few months. I thought of my Dad’s newly engraved humble plaque in far-away upstate New York, off a peaceful country road. No dignitaries or rail barons there I expect, and for the most part, humble markers on the ground- but no less significant or extraordinary the lives the place memorializes. After losing him so recently, I found myself staring at unknown graves here, wondering about oh, ” Ina Coolbrith 1841-1928″, to name one. What life did you have, who were your loves, what were your passions? I even spent a moment thinking of how I might design my own epitaph, and was reminded of the best one  I ever heard: ” Here lies _________…, I told you I was sick”

The  cemetery was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, whose name comes up repeatedly in this space; the man got around. The landscape here is organized around a central allee, punctuated by three fountains, with the plots that then terrace up the rolling hills. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that I lived a mere few blocks down Piedmont Ave. from here years ago, but never once ventured inside. The place is littered with Crockers, Kaisers, Stanfords, Ghirardellis , not to mention Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck. And the weather cooperated as well, a steel grey day, utterly colorless, as has been our steady diet here all summer.

I continue to step forward, through this wilderness of a new chapter, and , at least on this day, I felt I was where I needed to be;  walking amidst ghosts, on a foggy afternoon.