Monday, August 25, 2008

Spolia in the Garden: Fernwood Cemetery

This is a quick posting inspired by Bill Caraher's "Spolia in the Garden" (The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, August 13, 2008). During my sporadic visits to Philadelphia, I've been trying to care for the dead, i.e. the traditional Greek duty of keeping parental tombs well tended. See, for instance, earlier posting Buried in Bottles. Part of this upkeep involves caring for flowers and burning the flame. The Greek section of Fernwood Cemetery is caught between two monument traditions. It's a predominantly Protestant cemetery, where the tombs receive no adornment beyond the tombstone and endless grass. The Greek section is a lot more monumental with a hodge-podge of installations trying to replicate Mediterranean customs, which involve demarcating the whole length of the tomb and reassuring that nobody ever walks over the burial.

For my mother's plot, I decided to go half way and leave most of the area covered with grass (hence regularly mowed) but demarcate a small flower plot with one perennial (mums) , one annual (chrysanthemum) and one plastic flower (respecting my mother's friends who brought it; old Greek-American ladies argue that plastic flowers are far superior to natural ones--they have a point). In order to protect the little garden from the wrath of the lawnmower, however, I built a tiny submerged brick enclosure, just like the one that Bill and Susan Caraher made in their garden at Grand Forks. Rather than buying new industrial bricks from Home Depot, I, too, recycled. I salvaged seven 19th-c. bricks from the back of my house.

Note the candle holder in the picture. The good upkeep of the plot is done just as much for the living visitors as for the dead. Americans go nuts over their lawns at home; Greeks go nuts over their cemeteries. A well-kept tomb (i.e. by a family that cares) has a lit candle. The candle holder in the photo is a gift from our friends, the Zogas family. The candles are basically Latin American votives, which I buy from my local Latin American grocery store. Celina prefers the ones covered with gaudy Catholic iconography (sacred hearts, etc.), I prefer the simple red. Not to be macabre, or anything like that, but burial plots come in pairs, an upstairs and a downstairs. If for whatever reason, I happen to pass away unexpectedly, I find it comforting that I might be resting here, too. But I'll stop here. On grass, Elizabeth Kolbert's article is a MUST, "Turf War," New Yorker (July 21, 2008).

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States