Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tombstone Diaries: What Our Graves Say About Us

I like dead people. No, not that way. Though some dead people are really hot. Have you seen Gene Kelly's wondrous ass? Or Fredric March's chiseled jaw? As a Film Theorist and Memoirist who specializes in studying and writing about classic Hollywood, I spend most of my waking hours thinking, dreaming and analyzing those who have dearly departed from both the silver screen and the living. And you know what? I like it that way. If I had a motto, it would be “out with the new, in with the old.”

I also happen to love visiting cemeteries. I grew up next to a small, 2-3 acre cemetery in southern Oregon and visited it at least twice a week from ages 5-18. My precious 5 lb. Dachshund, Libby, and I would pack a lunch, pick wild flowers and lay them on our favorite graves while sharing a pb & j and some potato chips. I was undoubtedly a weird child, but remembering and spending time with the dead just felt like the right thing to do – kind of like visiting an old folks home to talk to senior citizens or volunteering at a homeless shelter. I wanted to help the dead by remembering and recognizing their past and present existence, only you know, with less chatty interactions.

As an adult, I still enjoy visiting cemeteries for the same reasons, though I don't get to go nearly as often as I'd like. I moved to Chicago when I was eighteen and visited the epic Graceland cemetery a handful of times, traveled to New Orleans and spent an afternoon with some yellow fever victims at the historic St. Louis #1 cemetery and have made a few pit stops at other cemeteries around the US over the past ten or so years.

Though, to be honest, I never put much thought into why I liked visiting cemeteries so much until last weekend.

I recently moved to the Czech Republic. While gearing up for the big move, my husband and I got acquainted with Czech culture by watching classic Czech cinema and discovered an amazing actor named Hugo Haas. He had a very tragic and amazing life that, suffice it to say, is worthy of its own essay, but I had the dubious pleasure of visiting his grave last week at Brno's Jewish cemetery.

The tombstone states in bold letters “Czech Actor Hugo Haas.” He or whomever interred him clearly knew that he was proud to be a Czech citizen and actor and wanted to be remembered that way for all eternity. He had been married for thirty years, lived in the United States and acted and/or directed over fifty films, but he was most proud of being a Czech actor. 

This got me thinking – what do our tombstones say about who we were or what we were like?

Unlike our gorgeous gams, the sound of our laugh or even our tattoos, our tombstones (if we choose to have one, anyway) are the last, and, unfortunately, most physically permanent markers of our being and personality. More often than not, they are simple, classy affairs with a name, date of birth, date of death and who they were married to. Now and then they have a quote or even a photograph of the dead person on the tombstone. Occasionally, they're elaborate, beautiful pieces of architecture that perfectly capture the spirit of the deceased. Sometimes, often times, the simplest of graves actually house the most touching and beautiful stories.

Over the past week or so, I've haunted (haha – get it?!) this website and looked at hundreds of different celebrity graves. The results are rather surprising because most of them are...well, normal. Out of the hundred or so I saved on my desktop, only a few really stood out as unique or timeless. Joan Crawford's grave isn't a well-polished, colorful tribute to her stardom (though it is very clean) and Audrey Hepburn's isn't a coy, fashionably elegant monument to her lady-like demeanor.

Crawford is buried with her long-dead, very boring husband, Alfred Steele, and Hepburn's is just a simple cross. Neither mention their acting achievements or hint at their personality.

Marilyn Monroe's doesn't mention the pain of her existence or honor the legacy she left behind.

Without a word, it simply states that she died too young and she was loved.

Sometimes the graves were just as I expected them to be:

The epitaph reads “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.”

 Elizabeth Taylor's Grave.

That statue is about 10 ft. tall.

Some are (intentionally or unintentionally) quite hilarious:

A few are classy tributes to the artist's legacy:

A handful of them are of the deceptively simple variety:

Hollywood's favorite French lover was married to his lovely wife, Pat, for 44 years. After she died of cancer, he killed himself by overdosing on seconal. He couldn't stand to live without her.

Fabulous actress and dancer Ann Miller was nine months pregnant with her daughter, Mary, when her terrible husband, Reese Milner, got drunk and she “fell” down a flight of stairs. Ann had to give birth to the dead baby with a broken back and she never had any other children. Though she danced with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and was a fantastic star in her own right, she wanted to be remembered as a mother.

Ms. Dee also had a very tragic life, eerily similar to her contemporary Marilyn Monroe. It was plagued with eating disorders, incest, bad marriages, alcoholism and a fall from stardom. Her grave makes me want to cry.

So, what do you think, dear readers? Have you ever thought about what you want to put on your tombstone? How do you want to be remembered? Are you a Woody Allen type obsessed with your own demise? Or are you like Harold, Maude and me? I think the three of us agree with Auntie Mame on this one - “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death! Live!”

Love your life, love your death and, if you've gotta go out, go out in style:

More awesome tombstones after the break...