Revisiting MacRae Cemetery

C and I have been going on a lot of walks lately. She gets into this strange baby hypnosis mode when we’re out exploring and sometimes for fun I wave my palm in front of her face to determine how zonked she is. She swats it away and is like, “LADY, I was in a reverie. Way to go breaking it.” Down the road and to the left of our apartment building is a small development of homes – one of those neighborhoods that looks like it was probably put together on a long weekend. Vinyl siding, no trees over six feet tall, houses that are basically the same but all have an arched second story window to hint at architectural originality. There are sidewalks over most of the development and there isn’t a lot of traffic, so that’s where we go.

A couple weeks ago as we were walking, we turned down an unexplored street and I saw a large, black, wrought-iron arch in the distance. As we neared it, I realized that it was the entrance to a small family cemetery. It was strange to see such an ancient, solemn space interjected among starter homes where I would not want to spend a lifetime.

Macrae Cemetary

View from inside

I parked C’s stroller and looked around. All the tombstones were quite old; the most recent marker was from a death in 1988 but it was definitely an outlier, as most of the stones were from deaths that occurred from the 1840s to the 1920s. Most were broken and toppled and the largest one – presumably the one for which the family cemetery was named – even had graffiti on it.

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The wind started gusting since it was a cemetery and that’s what it’s supposed to do, and C got fussy just sitting there while I sated my morbid fascination, so we turned back for home a few minutes later.

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Back home, I googled the cemetery and the only thing I could find was an old (by Internet standards) description of the place from 2001 that described the cemetery and its location. At that time, the subdivision was still just a glimmer in its big box developer’s eye so only a dirt road could lead you to it. And the writer of the description advised a four-wheel drive vehicle to get you to it should you want to visit it yourself. What struck me most was that it was described as “abandoned” even back in 2001. The description was wistful: “This cemetery is in bad condition with many broken headstones. I had to piece some of them together just to read them.”

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***

Thus ends the portion of the post I wrote a month ago and then abandoned, just like MacRae Cemetery. I have been mulling this place over in my head for weeks trying to pinpoint the exact thing about it that intrigues me. I want to find a message in this tiny forgotten cemetery down the road from me. I could talk about Death, but the hugeness of that topic overwhelms me. I could talk about the fact that C will never know either of her grandfathers, but that’s just too sad and fresh for me to visit. I’ll talk about that eventually, but I want those stories to be prompted by something less arbitrary than a random cemetery. I also played around with the idea of talking about the juxtaposition of something so old and precious with something so new and hasty. But mostly I just wanted to use the word “juxtaposition”. Juxtaposition, juxtaposition, juxtaposition. Now. You know that I know the word. So moving on.

Over the course of the month that I took a break from MacRae Cemetery, I did other things and countless other ideas blipped across my radar. MacRae got pushed aside but it persisted. What was I supposed to do with this old forgotten place? It was unfinished business that started nagging me to wrap up. I have this stubborn urge to neatly file away all my experiences in tidy white boxes that fit in the walk-in closet between my ears. I want to access them easily, and put them exactly where they belong, so it was driving me nuts that MacRae was basically tossed in a big pile labeled “pending” on my dinner table. Now that I’m facing it again, it is becoming more clear that the gloom and the one-acre can of worms I’ve opened is insisting that images and ideas persist across time. They have a life of their own (oh, and the irony that I just used the word “life” is not lost on me). Despite the fact that these tombs are old and forgotten, they still have meaning. Years after the funeral attendants of 1842 have died themselves, I am still grappling with the mourning and sorrow they felt over 150 years ago.

Just because things fade from memory and are replaced with houses teeming with more relevant activity and life doesn’t mean that they were all for naught. The gravestones are broken, but that adds to their story. Those lives that were lived and mourned over a hundred years ago are not stuck in the past like a mosquito in amber. They make up the experience of mine and my child’s life. They are the details that give our walks patina.

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54 comments

  1. Lovely post. As odd as it may sound I used to love taking walks around the local cemetery when I lived right by it. It was huge but always so beautiful even on rainy days. I thought I was strange for wanting to know about all the gravestones and who they were and what they did. But you have just reminded me that yes it’s a bit morbid but without these people I would not have the things I have today I would not live how I do; all these people are a part of my history. And do you know what the most beautiful thing is about the place is? People still lay flowers on the graves of people buried more than 100 years ago!

    1. That is really cool that their families (presumably) still make sure that their graves are taken care of. I think that’s part of what makes me so pensive about this cemetery that I found: that it’s old and forgotten and the people buried there don’t have any apparent ties to anyone living. It really goes to show how interconnected we all are, even if our family lines die out.

  2. I love me an old cemetery. Very relaxing.

    1. I agree. They are always so quiet and solemn.

  3. I don’t know if I can take it, you used “juxtaposition” and “patina” in one post. What are you trying to do, Emily, make the rest of us look bad? Lol!
    I love this post. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your ancestors is buried there. That’s the kind of stuff that happens to me. Wouldn’t that freak you out? I dig (I just realized I use the word “Love” ad nauseam) cemeteries and the incredible pull they have with regard to connecting the past to the present. I grew up near a quaker cemetery in New York, which I passed everyday. Little did I know, it was almost entirely made up of my ancestors. How bizarre is that? I guess it’s my love of genealogy that makes me wonder about such things. Maybe someone buried there has an amazing story that you’re supposed to tell, more importantly, maybe Cee was hearing dead people when you waved your hand in front of her face. I feel nothing is beyond her capabilities.
    Cool post, Em. Very cool.

    1. She has her finger on the pulse of the Other Side, that one ;D

      I really like cemeteries too. When we were in Paris on vacation a couple years ago, we went to a lot of them because they are always free to the public and there aren’t a ton of tourists around. Some of the best memories I have there are of roaming around cemeteries all day, admiring the gravestones and the artwork. The cemetery that most of my immediate family is buried in has a policy that the stones have to lie flat on the ground, so I loved seeing the giant memorials and mausoleums in Europe that are sometimes upwards of 10 to 15 feet high. It was a nice “juxtaposition” to what I was used to ;D (Seriously, I have got to cool the frick down.)

  4. Emily, what a provocative piece, with the juxtaposition of the new “instant” neighborhood in the midst of the forgotten and neglected cemetery. It is a sad commentary on what we value today.

    1. You guys should come visit us next time you venture to NC and I will show it to you!

  5. Oops. I somehow, through sheer lack of coffee, missed your juxtaposition paragraph. I thought I was the smart one saying juxtaposition. I guess great minds think alike?

    1. Great minds, great minds indeed! ;D

  6. Emily, your writing skills are out of this world. I think this piece is one of your best. You’re going places, girl–keep it up!

    1. Thank you, Willow! I have really, really been trying to tighten things up lately so I appreciate you noticing and your encouraging words ;D

  7. Beautiful post, Emily! What an interesting discovery – an old family cemetery in your neighborhood. These places do evoke feeling and imagination and sense of the threads of life interwoven throughout time.

    1. They really do! I like to imagine what their lives were like, and I like to think of all the people who visited the cemetery during the past decades. Their dress and their cars were probably a lot different from mine, but the feelings in their hearts were probably very similar to my own.

  8. I always find these small cemeteries are always in the most unlikely places, though I suppose, where does a cemetery belong? We have a few of them here amidst new McMansions and strip malls.

    1. There is another one right next to a small skate park in my town. I always feel kind of bad for the people buried there. It’s not exactly a peaceful place.

  9. A cemetery can be both so calming and yet eerie. (Cue swirling wind.) I think that’s the juxtaposition I took from this post. And that your walks have patina. Nice.

    1. Calming and eerie IS a good juxtaposition. They juxtapose nicely ;D

  10. Really enjoyed this post Emily. I have been drawn to grave yards my whole life. I grew up in New England where there are so many old cemeteries… graves from the 1600! I used to rub charcoal over wax paper, to save some of the prettiest ones. Many had really cool histories on them (a picnic where 18 people drowned, trying to save 2 boys, who lived) and others just held me there for a while. I find cemeteries such a reflective, powerful place. So strange to see this one stuck in this subdivision, and left in such a state. Sad. It would haunt me as well… Thanks for sharing.

    1. I would LOVE to visit a super old cemetery in the US. My husband and I took a long trip to France and Iceland a couple years back, and some of the most memorable moments were us just roaming around cemeteries in Paris. One memorial that really stuck with me was the tomb of the monk Abelard and the nun Heloise. It was in the same cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried, but I found their tomb to be much more riveting simply because it was so old and had such a beautiful story surrounding it. I love how old stones are more likely to tell the stories of the people they memorialize; that’s kind of a lost tradition I think. Nowadays you just see the dates they lived and maybe a couple words to describe their character.

      1. New England is FULL of them! My grandmother is buried in one that has hundreds of stones form the 1600s and 1700s… cool names, interesting epitaphs and stories. I saw the picnic/drowning one in CT. European cemeteries can be really amazing though! Oh, and New Orleans.. VERY interesting.

    1. Thanks, Grace ;D

  11. “I have this stubborn urge to neatly file away all my experiences in tidy white boxes that fit in the walk-in closet between my ears. I want to access them easily, and put them exactly where they belong” – you make writing seem so easy! Loved this post. I’m also drawn to cemeteries and can relate to your experience. Also, I may or may not have had to look up the meaning of “patina”.

    1. Haha! I may or may not have had to check its spelling ;D Thanks, Soundhippy!

  12. Oh, so beautiful! Your writing is just magnificent! It is really an odd juxtaposition…things so old and so new. I am drawn to old things like that too…I always imagine the lives people led decades ago, what they felt, where they traveled, how they loved, what they ate. There’s a universality of experience there that I find strangely comforting.

    1. I know, right? It’s kind of dazzling to think about how the stuff of their lives was so different from ours – their clothes, their cars, the meals they ate – but they were just humans like us, just born into a separate set of circumstances.

  13. I light up when I find history laid out in front of me like that. It piques my curiosity and this sense of wonder that’s hard to describe.

    1. I know what you mean. It is kind of mystical and eerie that these places and objects have been around for so long, just sitting there and waiting to be discovered.

  14. Teresa Pate · · Reply

    Maybe we can clean it up when on my next visit. Love to straighten and dust. Mom

    1. Haha there were a lot of gumballs!

  15. I really liked this post. I wish that we had things like that where I live, but of course you don’t really enjoy those things as much when you live near them lol. It would be interesting to look up the names and see what you can find out about them

    1. That is a really good idea! When I was googling the cemetery, I definitely found a lot of family history registries that would cast a light on these people and who the were.

  16. I have such cemetery love. I like how quiet they are. I like to walk around and read the inscriptions and make up stories about the people. I like to see which stones seem the most forgotten and spend the most time there, so that person feels less lonely. I would totally love this cemetery.

    1. “I like to see which stones seem the most forgotten and spend the most time there, so that person feels less lonely.” THIS. THIS is why I think I love you. Am I being too forward? ;D

      1. Hee! Nope. I’ll take the love! (Psst, I love you, too!)

  17. What a fantastic old gateway. It looks like something from a Tim Burton film.

    1. I know! It totally does!

  18. Wow. So you’re all like deep and philosophical and stuff, and all I could think was 1) I bet there are ghosts there. Dude, I hope there are ghosts there and 2) I wish I lived near a cemetery so I could go play Scooby-Doo with my kids. Somehow your way sounded a lot better.

    1. Ha! I have been swimming in the deep end a lot lately! Don’t worry; I’m working on a post about how I haven’t taken a crap in complete privacy since the baby was born. That should even everything out soon. We actually went back to the cemetery today and played peekaboo behind the stones. So, Hell should be fun. ;D

  19. Cool post, Emily. I wonder if the developer tried to raze that cemetery to build over that site but met resistance so it remains? I suspect that having an eerie eyesore like that in the neighborhood does not enhance property value.

    1. That is a really good point. I don’t know. There is a train track that runs directly behind the development too (I live several blocks away and can hear the train loud and clear whenever it comes through), so I’d guess that that destroys any chance of the developers making a decent profit off the homes. But if you don’t mind the noise and the possible ghost, you could probably get a fantastic price!

      1. I do mind noise — as remarkable as that must sound coming from a 30 year resident of NYC —but my neighborhood is actually rather quiet. I’m not too wild about ghosts, too, even if it’s only an occasional one. I don’t think I’ll be moving to that neighborhood in this lifetime.

  20. Cemeteries are fascinating places. There are a few that I revisit and have the same inexplicable intrigue about. There’s one in Liverpool that I visited on my last trip there, which has the actual gravestone of Eleanor Rigby! Way cool.

    1. That is so cool! When we were traveling in Europe a couple of years ago, we really wanted to make a stop in London so we could go and visit all the tombs at Westminster Abbey. Alas, we were not flush with enough cash to make a British pitstop on our tour, but it’s on our bucket list.

  21. I love cemeteries too! In my first two years of college at Utah State, they had a cemetery that felt like it was miles long. I would walk in it almost every day. It really soothed my soul, looking at other souls who were on this earth and left. (I was also going through a big Harold and Maude phase..so shoot me)
    The graves in English cemeteries, much like the ones you showed, are so cool and creepy looking. Barely legible, covered in moss, and sunken into the ground. Cool stuff that is.

    1. Not gonna lie. Had to google Harold and Maude but the instant I saw the picture I knew what you were talking about. I have been trying to convince my husband to try it out on Netflix with me. I mean, for the jackets alone. COME ON.

      1. Its so good. Also, Cat Stevens did the soundtrack. Love.

  22. Ashley Austrew · · Reply

    There was something sort of like that where I used to live in Texas. Houses and an alleyway, and then an old, abandoned cemetery. Just randomly, right in the middle of a suburb. The houses backed up to it. It was the strangest thing.

    I can see differences in your writing, by the way. It’s good, Emily. Real good. And yes, were I speaking out loud, I would say that ‘real good’ in my best Texan voice.

    1. Awww, thanks. I’d say, “Really? Really, Ashley?” in my best Forrest Gump voice.

  23. Emily. . . You are an absolutely beautiful soul. Truly.

  24. What an atmospheric place, lovely post.

  25. I think the people in NOL are on to something, giving tours of cemeteries. You and I share this unusual pastime…I’m a sucker for old cemeteries. Fascinating to the imagination. Also a great place to teach our children to drive…as my mother said while I haltingly learned the stick shift in a cemetery, “…at least you can’t kill anyone in here. They’re already dead.”

Now you can hold the magic talking stick.

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