Sunday, November 16, 2008

From a Cemetery on a Hill

Cemeteries have always intrigued me. When I was a small child, my grandmother and I would visit the grave of my great grandmother, located in a small, overgrown patch of land near the Greek-Macedonian border. The hot dry summer grass swayed gently in the wind and on the way home we would pilfer figs from overhanging trees and enjoy their sweet. St. Louis definitely is not Greece, but those early experiences amongst gravestones and family plots spurred an appreciation for the solitude and peacefulness of cemeteries. I was always fascinated by the fact that I was standing on top of a buried body and I would often fantasize about the lives of the interned, looking at the dates of birth and death to try and read clues about how or why these people passed away. 

St. Louis' Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries, located on the North Side, just west of the intersection of N. Kingshighway and W. Florissant, are both exceptional places as far as cemeteries are concerned; after all, nothing particularly exciting happens at cemeteries. A number of impressive heavyweights are interned here, including William Tecumseh Sherman, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), Dred Scott, William S. Burroughs, Adolphus Busch, as well as the mausoleum of the infamous Lemp family. A veritable collection of who's who in St. Louis society.  

The Eternal View
The cemeteries, situated on a hill, command a sweeping view of heavy industry - the landscape below is dominated by warehouses and tractor trailers. St. Louis' wealthiest families are not interned adjacent to this industrial landscape but these cemeteries are also located among some of the most economically blighted neighborhoods I've ever visited. 

While one looks out over the vast landscape of trees, warehouses, electrical lines, and tractor trailers one notices something puzzling about the environment. HARK! What is the divine sweet smell that wafts through the air as one wanders about, admiring mausoleums and obelisks? It is not the sweet smell of death but rather the sweet smell of Wonder Bread and Hostess Twinkies!

At some point when I was a child, I was lucky enough to visit Interstate Bakeries Corporation factory and have been forever mesmerized by the incredible scents that emanate from the industrial complex. The whirring machinery and conveyors, which send loaves of perfect, factory-made white bread flying by at various stages of production, made an indelible impression on my 6 year old self. This was the equivalent of visiting Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory if only he had chosen yeast and flour over high fructose corn syrup. The scents of these industrially produced baked goods are so strong that a stiff wind carries them miles away. Heaven!

This incongruity between landscapes is highlighted further by this synesthetic experience, which combines the visual with the olfactory. Bucolic rolling hills are ravaged by poverty and manufacturing.  River vistas have given way to industrial landscapes. And the smell of death is truly sweet here. The experience one can have at Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries highlights and epitomizes one's life in St. Louis. Life here is never what it seems to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

as a child I would spend my Sunday afternoons after Mass at Calvary and then down to Resurrection. Lunch would be brought by my Lebanese grandmother and we would visit our family...even in death, we would not miss a Sunday meal with them.