The Grave Undertaking of Stiffie's Photography on Halloween
By Jack Riepe, P.I.R. (Paramour in Residence)
Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year. The night air is as crisp as a Macintosh apple, and the wind leaves visible footfalls in the piles of leaves that collect on the sides of the road. It is the end of the harvest and time once again to read Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Watching the Tim Burton film adaptation of the same name (starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci) isn't a bad idea either.
This is the time of year when "La Stiffkins" (Leslie) and I head out in the little car to savor the best the fall has to offer. We look for arts, crafts, history, the unique, the quaint, and sometimes the occult. On this particular occasion, our destination was Rock Creek Cemetery, 86 rolling acres of solace in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Leslie (Stiffie) had signed up for a photo safari, a wandering class dedicated to expanding photographic technique while offering a remarkable choice of subjects. The Rock Creek Cemetery was established in 1719, but transcended the churchyard concept and became a source of expression for the art of grief and personal remembrance in the late 19th century. These houses of the dead say a lot more about who used to live in Washington than the houses of the living say now.
I watched Stiffie (Leslie) shoulder her gear and trudge off with other members of the safari, winding her way among the tombstones. A chill went up my spine as she disappeared among these granite and marble harbingers of the hereafter, and I hoped this was not the seed of a premonition. With three hours to kill, I thought of staging a little safari of my own to the Old Ebbitt Grill. This is the last powerhouse saloon left in the United States, just steps away from the White House. It is the kind of place where red "power ties" are actually nuclear powered, and Republican foreplay (the extended handshake) is liberally offered to lobbyists wearing their ethical hot pants.
I was wearing my uniform, jeans and an old ratty shirt, and concluded I'd stick out at Old Ebbitt 's. My preference is for a Gibson martini at the bar in Union Station anyway. But the thought of parking the car within a stone's throw of Capitol Hill held no appeal on a day like this. Each ray of the afternoon sun picked up another color of fall in the leaves of the trees and I did something that Stiffie refused to let me consider earlier, despite the day's warm temperature.
I put the top down. Then I set out on a cemetery tour of my own.
Leslie and I have this thing for cemetery angels. She likes the art form. I am fascinated by the very idea of winged celestial beings that serve the pleasure of the deity. The first tomb that caught my eye depicted an angel, arms up-stretched in anguish. It was as if a guardian angel was lamenting the loss of its patron. I hope I engender the same feelings in my own guardian angel, though Stiffie thinks this would be highly unlikely. In fact, she suggested that I stay away from the edges of cliffs and subway platforms as the temptation might be too much even for a winged celestial being.
I found four bronze angels shouldering the massive roof of a mausoleum. This seemed unnatural to me. Angels are beings of light and flight. To my way of thinking, it would be enough that an angel escorted me through life. I wouldn't ask it to shelter me in death. I would hope my death would release an angel from the tedious chore of saving me from myself.
Next I paused at a mausoleum built of cut stone, resembling a country church in Britain. It was more than soothing. It was charming. Snug against the elements, it was a perfect eternal resting place, with a finely crafted stained-glass window to subdue the light. Many of these houses of the dead had wonderful stained glass windows in shades of fall colors. Regardless of the hour of daylight, it is always sunrise or sunset inside. Some of these windows were of landscapes, while others were palms or the risen Christ. The message of the resurrected Christ is a strange one for a tomb. It says, "I alone walked from here, while you must wait for the last day."
The general style in 19th and 20th century mausoleums calls for columns or thick stone construction, fronted by impressive doors. I refer to this as the Federalist period of death. It amazes me that after living, people would want their souls entombed in a structure resembling the main Post Office or the Federal Office of National Engraving.
Three mausoleums struck me as very interesting and remarkably different. One was another structure built to the dimensions of a English stone chapel -- but larger than the first I saw. It was big enough for me to live in now. This one had a miniature steeple complete with little gargoyles. The name on the door was "Hibbs." Another was a stone structure that was open in front, but secured by a gate. Inside were two granite sarcophagi side by side... A man and his wife.
I could almost hear him whisper, "Dear, are you there?"
And her reply might be, "Of course. I'm right here my love. Go back to sleep."
The third was a crypt built into a hillside. It was lined with brick, had an iron gate, blocking an arched passage that led down into the hill. I was thinking of climbing over the gate and waiting in there to surprise Stiffie. (There is a reason why she does not ask me to participate in these little adventures.) Then it occurred to that this is the sort of thing that happens in horror movies, and that I could be detained in this little hill for eternity.
One of the more haunting memorials was the statue of a man, wearing a shroud, waving from his grave as if to say, "Remember me. . . . I'm here." And there were headstones from the late 1700's and early 1800's that were swallowed up by the roots of trees. Only the last few inches of the tops of some were still visible. I imagined a person of spirit and strength buried here, lending heart to a towering oak.
Deer move freely within the confines of these 86 acres. They are small and live in the heart of urban sprawl. Two years ago, a deer walked all the way from Rock Creek Park to Georgetown, a distance of several miles without being noticed.
I came across Stiffie, bending light and color to her bidding through a lens. She sensed my presence, like a tiger is aware of wounded cape buffalo in the brush.
"Are you haunting this place," she asked, without looking up from her picture-taking.
"I was cruising for single women," I replied.
"I only have a few minutes to get this right..."
"So I should get lost," I concluded.
"Bingo," she said.
The location, the setting of the sun, and the simultaneous rising of the moon made me think of my own mortality. I envisioned my own headstone, as it might appear among these others. Tucked away among the trees, it would read, "If you can read this, then you are standing on my chest."
October 31, 2007