The Passionate Taphophile


The Burying Point

I’m sitting on an unadorned granite block, about six-by-three feet. Beneath it, and so beneath me, lie the mortal remains of the grandparents, mother and the two unmarried sisters of Nathaniel Hawthorne, probably the greatest romance writer of all time.

I’m quite pleased with myself. I’ve managed to find their tomb despite the obstacles strewn in my path by the passage of time, vandalism and neglect, pure erosion and the acidic rain that has eaten away at soft marble monuments since the advent of the internal combustion engine at the outset of the 20th century. In fact, I’m feeling a bit like Indiana Jones.

Research had told me that Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hathorne and her two daughters were buried in the tomb of her father, Nathaniel’s grandfather, Richard Manning. The wealthy operator of the Salem-Boston stagecoach line, a few years before his death Richard purchased the family tomb in the then brand-new Howard Street Burial Ground, commissioned by the city fathers of Salem, Massachusetts, and laid out in 1801, but still just the third oldest burial ground in the storied city. Just a few blocks away, the city’s oldest graveyard, the one the tourists go to see, harbors the remains of Nathaniel’s Quaker-baiting, witch hunting ancestor, Col. John Hathorne.

Time has not been as kind to Howard Street as it has to the Old Burying Point, which has benefitted from spasms of renovation and restoration since the late 19th century. Richard Manning’s last resting place is only one of an array of tomb caps that once included a marble sheet that recorded the names and the parameters of the lives of those who lie below. Most are missing now, and those that remain are severely eroded, unreadable. The records of who’s who, and who’s buried where within Howard Street’s confines no longer exist.

But this day the sunlight is serendipitously diverted through an array of gray clouds and reveals in high relief, etched into the side of the block, the name: Richard Manning.

If I had strolled by at any other time of day, as I had countless times before, I never would have seen it.

So, I feel like I’ve rescued folks from the fog of history; on a minor scale, I can appreciate the exhilaration of Howard Carter when he rediscovered Tutankhamen.

There is so much history beneath my feet, that I imagine a red carpet being rolled out on Resurrection Day. Howard Street harbors some of America’s earliest millionaires, who earned their fortunes from privateering, the profits of which they parlayed into the fabulous East India trade. One, George Crowninshield Jr., a dashing former privateer, America’s first playboy-adventurer, used his millions to build America’s first luxury yacht, Cleopatra’s Barge. It is reported he spent $100,000 on her in 1816, roughly the equivalent of $1.2 million in today’s dollars. It was eventually purchased by the King of Hawaii to serve as his royal yacht. Crowninshield’s tomb is also in plain sight here, but unmarked. I’ll figure out which one is his, too, eventually.

Heroes lie here too, veterans of this country’s wars from the Revolution to the war with Spain.

A few yards away stand the ruins of an ancient prison that resembles the set of a Hammer Horror film. Somewhere close to its grounds the hapless but defiant Giles Corey was slowly crushed to death by having stones piled upon his body, torture intended to make him confess to a charge of witchcraft. His traditional last words to his tormentors: “More weight!” It is said his ghost walks between Howard Street’s stones on the eve of catastrophic events.

By now you’re wondering what old graveyards have to do with writing in general, or writing erotica in particular. That’s easy: Graveyards are full of lovers. Lovers with lovely names, names with a patina of long ago romance, such as Anstis, Tryphosa, Sophronia. Endearing names, such as Polly, Hittie and Sukey. Prim names such as Silence, Patience, Forbearance and Fortune. In those days a man could outlive several spouses. Even among Puritans, however, there is a palpable sense of loss conveyed in an epitaph by a grieving husband to his lost wife: “my light,” “my helpmate,” “my friend,” “my rare jewel.”

There is a cadence and just pure style in the language of epitaphs written by unknown authors. One does not die; one has “a period put to his life.” Or, he was “launched into the realm of spirits.”

A stroll through a graveyard, or particularly older cemeteries, isn’t just a stroll through history, it’s a source of inspiration. Some gravestones tell a person’s story succinctly; others leave it up to you to connect the dots, an excellent exercise in story-building. An 18-year-old bride who lies with her firstborn: the dates are the same. A second wife, who died in her thirties, the third who died in her nineties. But, where’s the husband? His stone isn’t there. Was there no one left to pull the grass up over his face? Write their story; it may not be entirely accurate, but there’s still a story to tell.

What can you make of side-by-each headstones that read, left to right: SAVAGE – LOVE.

Graveyards are sexy. There, I’ve said it. I’ve written sex scenes set in graveyards, two in Salem’s Old Burying Point. One occurs as a couple get it on atop old Judge Hathorne, the other spot is unspecified, although anyone familiar with the layout of the burying ground would recognize my lovers are cavorting upon the tomb cap of Massachusetts colonial Governor Simon Bradstreet, husband of the poet Anne. I’ve also used cemeteries as backdrops for characters as they recall their passion for lost loves, as well as discover their nascent passion for new loves.

Graveyards aren’t just for vampire and ghost stories. But I’ve enjoyed strolls through a few that would make perfect settings for those too.

We all take our inspiration from different sources and places. But, the next time you want to kick-start your muse, or trying to name a character, consider a walk through your local graveyard, the older the better. So many lives, so many stories.

Do you think passion survives the grave?

Consider this poetic testament to love surviving eternity by a pair of hotties, an artist and her husband, which adorns their common grave in a lovely little cemetery tucked away on Cape Ann, about 20 miles north of Salem:

Here one within this urn/ No less if yet no more/ Commingled than before/ Lies what of us could turn/ To ashes of desire/
But our most rapturous part/ That full resplendent flame/ Of love we used to share/ That fond and mutual fire/ which fused us heart to heart/ Burns on somehow, somewhere/ Unseen – but still the same!

Would it surprise you if these two souls were yet swirling in their urn?

Robert Buckley
February 2009

A Gallery of Cemeteries

“Cracking Foxy” © 2009 Robert Buckley. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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