We came up to Woodstock this week to buy property. Actually, two properties: one for the next chapter in our lives, and one for the last. Not much luck, yet, on that first mission. But, as for the other … well, let’s just say that we can check “take care of eternity” off our to-do list. We just staked our claim to a three-and-a-half by ten foot bit of it.
Cemeteries, at least the old ones, by their very nature are repositories of placeness. They are fields of stories, untold, hinted at, of lives lived and lives snatched away, of fulfillment and mortal theft, of the luck of the draw and the final act of field-leveling and shared fate. These days, though, cemeteries are gated communities for the dead, with rigid rules of corporate bloodlessness that rival those of New York high-end co-ops: size of stone, type of shrub, adornment of gravesite – all spelled out and enforced. In this way, they are not only places for the dead but dead places; in terms of placeness, dead zones. Cold uniformity that robs the deceased of their individuality.
But old cemeteries? They are like walking in libraries, among giant, upright books that tell the simplest of tales, engaging the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, to ride that dash between birth and death dates. There is no greater exercise of narrative imagination than standing before a tombstone and trying to reassemble the life and death it announces. And there is no odder yet more comforting act, nothing more soothing, nothing more frightening and shiver-inducing, than to walk among an old cemetery’s tall and short, upright or tilted, clean or moss-covered monuments, stepping about the now-and-again suddenly too-soft earth, and hearing the whisper of an invitation, one for which you can do nothing but return your R.S.V.P.
The plot we bought – and on one of our birthdays, no less; talk about symbolism or circularity! – is in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery, just off Rock City Road. How can you not love a town that sees its duty to be an artists’ colony from cradle to grave, that honors the act of art-making and those who do it by designating a lovely rise near town to keep the recorders of beauty and shapers of thought close by and attended to? How can anyone who feels himself to be an artist not want to be, forever, in a field among others, equal among equals, the best-known name and the least sharing, finally, that same table at that same cafe, egotism a thing of the past.
We’ve written about the Artists Cemetery on our website, and instead of being gauche and quoting ourselves, we direct you there, where we think we captured some of its spirit and placeness, its sophistication yet innocence, its sadness yet celebration, its sweetness and, in a way, its victory. If, in its strong placeness – far stronger than at the traditional cemetery across the road – one feels there are ghosts afoot, they are triumphal spirits: artists become art.
Come visit us at plot K-12, up the hill, a little to the right of the tree, just down from the Wilsons. But no hurry. We’re not quite done the art of living. But when our time comes, we will be vapor once more, and vapor among vapors of brethren.