Spending time with the dead

I found myself wandering around Elizabethtown, NY earlier this week. I dropped my car off at the Chevy dealer to get it’s battery replaced.

Luckily the weather was nice enough to walk around and the day mostly threatened rain without delivering much. I wandered down the main street and saw the county courthouse and the other accumulated brick buildings.

Essex County Courthouse with historic marker in foreground describing a night when Abolitionist John Brown's body was stored in the courthouse.

I wandered though more of the town, walked up into the woods until it became too muddy for my sneakers. On my way back to the dealership I saw a Pileated Woodpecker on a dead tree maybe ten feet from me. I hadn’t realized just how huge they are.

After some rest I walked out again, planning to make sure that both the conflicting sets of hours weren’t wrong about the public library being closed on Tuesdays, but ended up wandering down a side street and into a cemetery.

The first headstone I saw was a short white marble plinth placed in the center of a path through the cemetery, so you approached it when entering one part of the cemetery and see it in front of you. After you read how Samuel Dwyer lived and died, you come to the back of his memorial.

The Patriot died.
The Union lives.

That’s an astounding memorial. The craft and sentiment in these headstones was affecting. It is interesting to spend time thinking about death and history in a graveyard, it could hardly be clearer evidence of the past lives lived in a place as well as a place’s change and decay. A toppled plinth, the gates rusted shut, and the moss growing over the stones makes it clear how much we prefer not to think about the dead or about what they might still say to us.

It was great to get out for a walk and to be able to do so with almost no anxiety about wandering into public spaces like empty picnic tables and the cemetery grounds. It’s interesting to go to a new place and to get to spend time thinking about it, thinking about nothing and seeing parts of it on foot, slowly. It was a nice day and I’m glad to have a fully functioning battery in my car.