Tuesday, April 12, 2011


My favorite cemetery of our recent trip was Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.  It had a section called "Author's Ridge" where the literary greats of America's 19th century Transcendental Movement are buried, not by themselves, but alongside their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, and in some cases, next to their descendants many generations down the line.

Here is the stone marker listing the names of of those buried Thoreau family plot:

And this tiny stone (see its relative size in the first picture above) with its single red rose marks the grave of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), author, poet, naturalist, philosopher, surveyor, and historian:

Thoreau was very good friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emerson, who was 14 years older but lived 20 years beyond Thoreau's death, delivered the eulogy at his friend's funeral. He said, in part, "This country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. . . . His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home."  Beautiful.

The Hawthorne family plot (seen from behind):

. . . and the marker for Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864), author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," and more:

The Alcott family plot:

. . . and the very unpretentious marker for Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), author of my beloved Little Women and many other novels:
(What's with the small change tossed at this marker?  Well-wishers remembering the erstwhile poverty of the Alcott family? Royalties from continuing book sales? A lively game of "Hit the M"?  I'll never know.  Like the other graves, however, it was decorated with a somewhat limp red rose.)

And then we saw our favorite of all the favorites, the Emerson plot.  Family members continue to be buried here, creating a wonderful chain of ancestors and progeny:

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Harvard graduate, minister, poet, and one of the greatest of all American philosophers, was well-acquainted with death.  His father died of stomach cancer when he was only eight, and his first wife Ellen Tucker, who probably already had tuberculosis when he married her, died after only two years of marriage.  For many years he visited her grave daily, and a year after her death he wrote in his journal, "I visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin." (!)

Four years after Ellen's death, Emerson married Lidian Jackson.  They had four children together, Waldo (who died at age five--another death),  Ellen (named after RWE's first wife), Edith, and Edward.  A very intelligent woman, Lidian was RWE's soul-mate in many ways, and she outlived him by ten years. She is buried next to him, and their oldest daughter Ellen, who never married but lived in Concord all her life and cared for both of her parents until they died, is buried on his other side:

The large, craggy rock that marks Emerson's grave is the most unique headstone I have ever seen. (Note to family: Bob wants one of these for his grave, and since I'll be buried in the same plot, I like the rose part):

The rock is almost as tall as I am.
The epitaph engraved on the metal marker affixed to the rock reads: "The passive master lent his hand / To the vast soul that oer him planned."

I think Emerson, with his belief in the great unity of all things, would like his stone monument and his gravesite overlooking the rather unkempt, hilly cemetery with its irregular placement of stones that are being upended everywhere by aggressive tree roots.  Many years before his death, he penned this poem titled "A Mountain Grave" that describes his final resting place quite well:

Why fear to die
And let thy body lie
Under the flowers of June,
Thy body food
For the ground-worms' brood
And the grave smiled on by the visiting moon.

Amid great Nature's halls
Girt in by mountain walls
And washed with waterfalls
It would please me to die,
Where every wind that swept my tomb
Goes loaded with a free perfume
Dealt out with a God's charity.

I should like to die in sweets, [definitely my favorite line]
A hill's leaves for winding-sheets,
And the searching sun to see
That I am laid with decency.
And the commissioned wind to sing
His mighty psalm from fall to spring
And annual tunes commemorate
Of Nature's child the common fate.

As a young girl, I was a great lover Little Women and every other book by Louisa May Alcott that I could get my hands on. Seeing her home and learning about her life in Concord was a revelation to me. I picked up Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson, the winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for biography, after our trip.

The details of Louisa's relationship with her father, the well-known philosopher, reformer, and writer Bronson, are fascinating. Alike in so many ways, such as in their love of the natural world and their desire for justice, they were nevertheless extremely different and had a rather volatile relationship. Ultimately, Bronson's itinerant lifestyle and radical education philosophies didn't help the family economics, and Louisa had to take on the financial responsibility for the family.

The book also covers in great detail the progress of Louisa's writing career as well as her connections to the other great thinkers of the Concord region: Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, and others. It's a great read for someone who loves Alcott and her books as much as I do.


  1. I'm not sure why more people don't do the rock thing for a gravestone, or other types of objects, like a big saguaro cactus, or a fanciful figure, like those in the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris. I suspect that cemeteries have restrictions on the kinds of monuments that can be used. But just think of what fun cemeteries could be if they allowed a little more boldness.

  2. I saw pennies on some of the graves at Arlington, esp. for the more recent deaths. I just assumed it was meant as good wish to the person who was deceased, but the reasons why (I googled it) are all over the map.

    @Bob: I just wanted to buried in a place that allows "standing" headstones, as I don't really like the flat ones. Luckily, Dave's family did just that. I think the rock one is interesting, but I like the ones with verses on them. thanks, Judy for this tour!