There is no more desolate place in America than a New England cemetery covered in snow during the short days of a long winter.
A cemetery is already a place of death, where proper reverence demands silence from those who enter. Stark stones stare steadfastly back at the visitor revealing just a few short facts about lives of varying lengths: names, dates of birth and death, and perhaps an epitath, perhaps not. After all is said and done, this is what we're reduced to to the casual passerby.
Enter winter. Snow adds a starkness and uniformity to a landscape begging for diversity. American veterans pay the price. Military plates are often laid flat on the ground, and a good snow cover like we have now obscures them entirely. Their names may be buried, but we know where they are by the small American flags that still reach above the surface.
I've never walked this cemetery before, and I don't know if I ever met anybody who's buried here. After an adult life of lecturing in public, several times for the Hanosn Historical Society, it certainly is possible. But one does not need to have personal acquaintances to divine stories from the stones. Elmer Hammond and his father Gilbert Hammond, Sr., are buried here next to each other. Each one served in the military. Gilbert, born in 1893, served with the Coast Artillery Corps in World War I. Elmer, born in 1923, was just old enough to fight in World War II. And he was just old enough to die, a technical sergeant with the 849th Bomber Squadron on January 5, 1945, part of the 8th Air Force. Several B-17s and B-24s were lost over Germany that day, crews and all.
The dates say it all. The father outlived the son. There is no greater tragedy.
We're losing our way in cemetery design. The older portions of this graveyard are reflective of a thoughtful time in American history. Romanticism brought us out of the simplistic harshness of traditional burial grounds, rows upon rows of similar stones laid across flat ground. Victorians altered the energy of such places by consecrating garden cemeteries, working with hilly landscapes, liberally applying new designs to burial markers, planting trees, understanding that such places could be for the living as well as for the dead. But here, and at other local cemeteries, a line is drawn at about 1950. Where new ground has been cleared, it's been flattened. If trees are planted, they are laid out in precise rows. Engineered roads are laid out to run parallel to each other. While stones now sport pictures and other graphic enhancements, they're all the same size. We're trying to return an orderliness to death, to maximize the number of burial plots by minimizing individualism.
Fern Hill abuts Wampatuck Pond directly, lending a feeling of peace to the surroundings that only a calm body of water can. Giant beech trees share the grounds with bare tamaracks and clusters of cedar trees. Hairy and downy woodpeckers rap on them in company of black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice. Half of this place, the half that works with the landscape, is serene, beautiful. In the other half, where plots for the living await their final visitation, the future has already returned to the past.
I stared at the story of the Hammonds, and my heart told me to stay so I could know more. But my frostbitten ears said it was time to go.
Time: 38 minutes.
New species: None.
Starnger hellos: None.
What else I got done: Eight hours at work; dinner with Michelle's family; watched the Bruins game with my baby boy on my lap.