Our friend Cecil was buried a few days after Thanksgiving. There were only eight or nine of us at his graveside that day as he had no family and very few friends. Larry and I had gotten to know Cecil and his ever-present dog Petey when he was attending the church for awhile. He was odd, amiable one day and difficult the next. He'd been beaten years earlier, had suffered severe trauma to the head and was never the same after that. But as unpredictable as he was, he could also be generous and hospitable. On those occasions when he knew that he had been particularly offensive, he would apologize by leaving a gift at our door as a peace offering. I could never stay mad for long where Cecil was concerned.
We were stunned to hear that he had died. He was in his fifties, pretty young by today's standards. A friend had invited him to Thanksgiving dinner but he never showed up. Two days later that same friend found him in his apartment, his little dog Petey close by. There would be no autopsy. No funeral. No fanfare.
Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York
There was quite a noise in Elmira recently over a missing plaque stolen from that same cemetery. Stealing from a grave is pretty despicable, but this was especially egregious, considering whose plot it was taken from, Mark Twain's. Yep, the one and only. You'd think he would have preferred burial in Hannibal, Missouri or somewhere else along the Mississippi. But nope, he's buried here along with his wife, daughters and extended family. The thief helped himself to one of the plaques that was mounted on the monument that marks the very spot. By the way, it was eventually found thanks to a little detective work and a thief who couldn't keep his mouth shut.
|This was big news in Elmira|
|The plaque before the theft |
Mark Twain is written all over this town, his name is everywhere. There's the Clemens Parkway, for example, which goes right by the Clemens Center, a beautiful theater for the performing arts. Hal Holbrook, the actor best known for his flawless portrayal of the man, comes back every two or three years and does his show there. Elmira College has a study program on Mark Twain, and the little octagonal study where he wrote most of his work sits on the grounds there. So naturally when we have out-of-town guests, it just seems right to ask them if they'd like to visit Mark Twain's grave. They always say yes. After all, he is one of the most celebrated authors in American history.
|Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) in his later years|
Of course he is not the only notable person to be buried at Woodlawn. There are others with markers pointing the way to their graves. Perhaps they're not quite as famous as Mr. Twain, but they are celebrated as well. Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner and Hal Roach of Hollywood fame both have road signs.
There are politicians, historical figures and others of prominence, all at rest beneath the sod of Woodlawn. Some of them are not so familiar, but the mausoleums set into hillsides and the many monuments engraved with family names speak of power, prestige and position, a reminder of what Elmira used to be.
We had a bit of trouble finding where Cecil's service was to be held that day in early December. We spent several minutes driving the winding narrow roads past numerous grave sites and had just passed Mark Twain's marker when we saw some activity up ahead. There was Cecil's name marking the spot with a blue casket directly behind, ready to be lowered into the earth. I was grateful for those who had come out on this chilly day to remember the man. The proximity to the most famous of monuments was not lost on me. Imagine that. Practically neighbors with the Clemens clan.
|Cecil's graveside service|
Cecil still has no stone on his grave. It's been a hard winter, but spring is approaching and the church will take care of ordering one and having it placed there. We've done this before. Christopher Jensen, also without family, had suddenly passed away and the church took up an offering to ensure that he would not be forgotten either. He lies in Woodlawn as well, not too far from the famous Mr. Roach.
Neither of these men will have signs pointing to where they now lay, nor will they have monuments that speak of earthly fame or fortune. But in the end, it doesn't really matter whether it's a simple granite stone or monument or mausoleum that holds the name. They all attest to the same thing. Mark Twain and Cecil Bullock and Christopher Jensen all lived for a time. And then they died. And that is worth remembering.