Smile Politely

Tom takes a walk in a cemetery

Well readers, it’s October. The month where I usually do a column about something SPOOKY just in time for Halloween. This time around, I hit a bit of writer’s block. I really didn’t have any solid column ideas. I did my usual writer’s block cure and took a long bike ride around town. I ended up at Mount Hope Cemetery. “Surely if I walk around this cemetery I’ll think of something spooky,” I thought. Well folks, this column is about my solitary, philosophical, and not terribly humorous stroll through Mount Hope.

Before I even entered the cemetery, I had thoughts about doing one of my usual “round-ups” or “listicle” style columns. I could give it a great clickbait title like: “TOP TEN HEADSTONES THAT GO HARD,” “SPOOKY TOMBSTONES YOU DON’T WANT TO MEET AT NIGHT,” “THESE EPITAPHS ARE ABSOLUTELY GOBLIN MODE,” or my favorite: “17 GRAVES I WOULDN’T BE CAUGHT DEAD IN.” Of course, passing these kinds of judgements on actual dead peoples’ burial sites did not seem particularly tasteful or moral to me, but it was a start.

As I began looking around at the headstones, I had a startling realization. For some reason, I’d assumed that Mount Hope Cemetery had been, like full…for years? Like, no new folks were getting buried there? It’s in the middle of town! It’s been around for over a century! How could it not be full? Well readers, I immediately realized my mistake, I saw many headstones with dates of death just from the past couple years. Perhaps this should not have been the deciding factor for me, but I couldn’t bring myself to write about headstones for people when their friends and family who buried them might be out there reading this column.

I kept on walking. It was a beautiful day for a walk, and I couldn’t stop looking at stones and reading names.

A cemetary with green grass and various stone headstones scattered across the landscape, and trees in the background. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

As far as I’m aware, I don’t personally know anyone who is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. After all, I’m not from Chambana. It’s true there weren’t any full names that I recognized, but there were many last names. I noticed family names of friends and coworkers who grew up here. Plus, some of the oldest headstones had names that would be familiar to anyone who has lived in C-U. Busey, Kirby, Hessel, and many more names that now are streets, parks, businesses. I felt like an interloper in this place.

A closer view of a collection of headstones, many with a tall pointed monument. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

There are of course many large and ornate tombstones in this cemetery. Surely you’ve seen some of them as you drive along Kirby Ave. I’d assumed that these were all for rich dead jerks, and maybe some of them are, but I noticed that many of the largest stones were for those who died far too young. Why was I surprised? How could it be any other way?

I suppose these revelations come from the fact that I just haven’t spent a lot of time in cemeteries. A blessing some would say, but also, what feelings, what experiences am I missing out on?

My father died when I was 13 years old. I haven’t been to his grave since we put his body there. Is that a problem? The grave is very far away from here. I’m only 60% sure that if you dropped me into that cemetery today that I could find my father’s headstone. I think of him often nonetheless. In fact, I sometimes think of him when I’m writing for Smile Politely. My dad was a good, and very funny writer when he wanted to be (which was most of the time).

“What do we owe the dead?” I kept thinking to myself as I walked among the graves. Initially it was: “what do I, a part-time, small-town, humor columnist, owe to these dead strangers?” Not reverence surely… respect? Or perhaps just courtesy. Soon though, the thought expanded to: “what do we, the living, owe to the dead, both known and unknown to us?” Do we owe them big rocks with their names on them? How long do we need to keep the big rocks around and the names on them legible? Smaller rocks sometimes last longer you know, but nothing lasts forever, or even a quarter of forever. Anyhow, this line of thought was well outside my capacity to ponder coherently, much less write about, so I pared it down to the more practical, “how does thinking of the dead make our lives better?” (I don’t have a good answer to this question either, but there’s lots of books and movies that do, so go investigate those I guess.)

I was struck by how many of the older gravestones really do look like the foam and cardboard ones that people put out in their yards for Halloween. Or, the other way around I guess — some foam decorations from Target do look like real headstones from 1880. The earth shifts, headstones tilt precariously and sometimes fall.

Two very old headstones that have partially sunk into the ground. They are leaning into each other and surrounded by green grass. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.
Close up of a very old headstone with a crack through the middle. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.
Two very old headstones, partially sunken. One appears to have a figure of a lamb on top. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

I did not see any real headstones with R.I.P. in bold lettering, or skeletons popping out of the ground.

At some point during the 1920s, it was in vogue to have a headstone shaped like a tree stump.

Three small headstones shaped like tree stumps are in a row. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Are graves human stumps? Not really. Nowadays, there’s new plants growing and pushing these false tree stumps around.

A tree with a lot of low branches is pushing through a line of tree stump shaped headstones. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

We’re all worm food in the end they say, but life also messes with the markers we place for the dead. There was life everywhere in this cemetery. It is basically a very nice park after all, that’s how we want it. But life has its way with these stones: knocking them over, covering them in foliage, walking all over them.

Close up of a headstone that is covered in light green moss. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.
A boulder-shaped headstone is in the center of a grassy area, and a squirrel is perched on top of it. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman

Even living in them. During my visit, I spotted a very large groundhog, something I’d never seen in all my years in Illinois. It bolted immediately and fled into the rubble of a collapsed mausoleum. It was a sign surely, but of what? A real life groundhog metaphor.

A crumbled stone mausoleum is covered in a large tarp and surrounded by other smaller headstones. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

I noticed a couple stones that had Busch Light cans placed on them. I assumed it was litter, but as I approached, I noticed the cans were unopened.

An unopened can of Busch Light sits on the base of a headstone. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

These were gifts to the deceased from a good friend still among the living. What do we owe the dead? Maybe just a cold Busch Light. It’s a better answer than some I’ve come up with. Many cultures leave food offerings for the dead. This is something I don’t really have experience with as a WUMCA (White, Upper-Middle-Class, Agnostic). But perhaps I should try it. I don’t know my father’s preferred brand of lite beer, but I have his margarita recipe, which is both tasty and strong, and we never got to drink it together.

Mount Hope Cemetery is quite large. I saw thousands of stones, different shapes, colors, and materials. I noticed trends through the many decades, though I was surprised when modern-seeming design had death dates from 100 years ago.

I was already pretty sure I wanted to be cremated, but walking through this cemetery really sealed the deal. Just thinking about all the different headstone options stressed me out. On top of that, what if I had to pick a thoughtful quote or epitaph to adorn my headstone? An even bigger decision! Should I pick a line from an author I like but never actually met? Or just go with “here lies Tom Ackerman, beloved guy. He reviewed restrooms.”

So friends and family, please take note. I wish to be cremated. Then take my ashes and mix it with asphalt, and use that “ashphalt” (patent pending) to fill potholes in the bike lanes around town. I can think of no better legacy.

Anyway, to wrap things up, I recommend you take a walk through Mount Hope Cemetery if you’ve never done so. I think fall is probably the best time for such an outing, ’tis the “thinking about mortality” season. It’s a very nice cemetery, and a special place in town that’s often overlooked. I truly didn’t realize how big it is until I was walking through it. Even if you don’t trot through the tombstones as I suggest, take a little time after reading this column, and think about one of the people in your life who has passed away.

Sorry for the downer month folks; and all because I was too lazy to keep looking for a haunted toilet! Next month I’ll definitely be back to crafting new pee jokes. See you then. Oh, and happy Halloween! (Note that I am always willing to trade away KitKats in exchange for Butterfingers, if you’re interested, just message me).

Top photo by Tom Ackerman.

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