Sunday, November 30, 2014

Epiphany #71: Warhol's Grave and other funereal celebrations

"Took my daughter to see Warhol's grave,
To see the rusty rings the soup cans made."

This morning, my father and I were reminiscing about my parents' trip to Europe, and he made the passing comment about the cemeteries in Vienna and how amazing they were, and I just had a thought about visiting cemeteries.

Two of the more memorable photographs in our our family collection involve cemeteries.  In the first one, I am lying prostrate and happy behind Henry David Thoreau's grave marker.  In the other, my daughter, age about three, is caught posing behind Warhol's tombstone in a small, hilly cemetery outside of Pittsburgh.  She is jarringly brightly-colored and effervescent behind the gray stone.   The latter photograph, if you were in the know, as in had a sense of irony, was the Christmas card insert you received that year.

My father was commenting on the many famous musicians he saw in the beautiful cemeteries of Europe (except for Mozart, of course, who is buried in a pauper's grave), and it made me think, what a strange custom when we, as tourists, make it a practice to visit the graves of the famous.

Family tombstones and burial plots I get.  We pay our respects.  We show our children where their grandparents or other ancestors are buried.  In a non-threatening way, I suppose we even suggest that their place will be here one day, too.

But the idea of visiting the famous graves of the world?  Is that not a bit odd?  What is it that we hope to get out of the experience?  Is it a vibe?  Is it a sense of shared interest (I love music; you played it well)?  A cemetery seems like a strange destination for a day of planned tourist activities.  Plus, as already noted, we find meaning in having a photograph to document the visit.

Of course, we do learn from those graveyard trips--Thoreau's grave only reads "Henry," a small marker, along with those of his siblings, that helps to semicircle the large shared tombstone of his parents.  In death, he was not the big deal that he has become for some.  Similarly, Andy Warhol's grave is surrounded by those of his family members, the Warholas, whose name he shortened in his transition to New York, perhaps to downplay his Polish immigrant roots.

But what is there in the graveyard that often calls us to journey far away from other tourist destinations?  The simple answer is that it is a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage to what?  Why does it matter where famous bones were laid to rest?  Is a pilgrimage to the graves of the famous even a pilgrimage?

Wikipedia reminds us that "pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith."

I would argue, I guess, that one person's pilgrimage is another person's Facebook post (of course, I'm not on Facebook, so can't say for sure) and that the latter may undercut the former.  I might even support that with my experience at a beautiful midnight Christmas Mass at Notre Dame being marred by the incessant camera flashes coming tourists from somewhere farther East.

But even for me, well, I admire a lot of Thoreau's ideas and I've developed an interest in Warhol over the years, but I can hardly call either trip a pilgrimage.

Perhaps the closest I came to an actual pilgrimage in a cemetery was a visit, a couple of summers ago, to Robert Johnson's grave on Money Road in Mississippi.  A few things made this journey different.  First, I had a grant and had spent the summer studying the blues, and the trip to Mississippi was the culmination of that. Those hots days focused on nothing but the blues, and it had, however briefly, become a "religion" (and the appreciation remains).  Second, Johnson's grave was a search.  Legend has suggested three different locations where Johnson was buried, and during the trip, we were relatively close to all of them.  This gravesite, though, had the strongest documentation.

But what took us there was the intentional desire to see the Tallahatchie Bridge made famous in the song "Ode To Billie Joe".  Sitting at lunch in Greenwood, the chance to see both seemed like a worthwhile side trip.  What cemented it was the accidental discovery that the store where Emmitt Till entered history was just around the corner.

Johnson's grave, by a small white church, was easy to find.  Although the tombstone had its own collection of relics, guitar picks and coins and whiskey bottles, we were the only ones there.   A hot, silent wind blew around us, and for several minutes, I had a subject and a life and a surrounding history and a spiritual atmosphere worthy of contemplation.

1 comment:

troutking said...

I like this post. Never really thought about it before. I guess I think visiting a grave, for me anyway, is just a search for a greater sense of connection to a person/subject I already feel some connection to. It's also a chance to focus thoughts on just that subject, much like, ironically, hearing a song performed live often gives it a different meaning. I know I've visited a fair amount of graves that were part of other visits--to presidential libraries or the Freedom Trail in Boston, etc--but the ones that I remember were specific trips just to gravesites. One was to Lee Harvey Oswald's grave in Fort Worth, probably just because of the mystery and unknown and my infatuation with the assassination. The other is Robert Frost's grave in Vermont because his epitaph is memorable: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."