I'd been reading obituaries as a staple with my morning coffee long before I came across Jeanette Schmid, Austria's last professional whistler. Schmid's obit was posted in the San Diego Union-Tribune in April 2005. The paper reported that she was better known as "Baroness Lips von Lipstrill," was born a man, underwent gender change surgery in 1964 in Cairo and started her whistling career during a visit to Tehran to perform for the shah, where her costume as a dancer was deemed too skimpy, so she ended up whistling a Johann Strauss Jr. polka instead. She became a popular performer on cruise ships, the brief obituary ends.
Over the years, my morning ritual introduced me to a ceramicist to the stars, a gentleman who played in a mariachi band during JFK's inauguration, the woman who invented the poodle skirt and many other unknown celebrities.
I drive past the adjacent Mount Hope and Greenwood cemeteries on Market Street regularly. I don't know anyone buried there, but one day, I made the fateful turn toward Mount Hope and Greenwood and began what have become regular visits.
At first I just drove around the winding roads. I loved the old mausoleum buildings, some with broken stained-glass panes, a motorcycle hearse parked out front. Something enticed me to park the car and amble across the grassy knoll, farther inside the cemetery.
Turns out, reading tombstones is to obituaries what Twitter is to Facebook. What I found at the cemeteries is that many graves, like the obits, are not about death, but about life.
Bessie Tanzer 1870-1915.
For others, it would seem, their work was their life:
Her work is done and the setting sun has sealed her life's request. Though the past is gone she will still live on in memory of all who loved her.
Served 43 years with Pacific Bell
Telephone Co. 1922-1965
Rest in Peace.
Willa Josephine 1903-1986.
Forty-three years with PacBell; I hope Willa Josephine received a good pension.
Nearby lies, or rather stands, the tombstone of George Joe, a granite four-sided pedestal as tall as I am that states:
The graveyard itself doesn't give me the heebie-jeebies, but the graves with impending inhabitants do. A double tombstone, a spouse deceased, birth and death dates etched on one half, then, carved on the other half of the same tombstone, the surviving spouse's name and birth date. The date of death is left blank. A grave with her name on it, literally, is waiting for her.
Occasionally, on one of these double-grave markers, the life expectancy of the "expected" has run its course, the date of death left blank for eternity. Is the survivor now planted with her new soul mate? Did that waiting grave cause her any guilt or grief? Was "Till death do us part" all she signed up for? Maybe she never had any intention of being buried with that old geezer. Mom had been thinking, Eternity? I put up with the guy for 55 years! I'm getting my own plot. The guy in the ground, who thought he'd found a way to keep her even beyond death, will be waiting still.
To visit Jim Morrisonís grave at Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, or any of the countless celebs at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills, has no appeal. All those celebrities who've been adored in life and in death don't need any more fans. Mount Hope has only one celebrity. Raymond Chandler is buried with Cissy Pascal, his wife, 18 years his senior, but to whom he was married for 30 years. When she died in 1954, he fell into despondency and alcoholism until his own death in 1959. He never completed the paperwork to have her ashes interred next to him, and they instead sat in a mausoleum. In 2011, a local group of fans succeeded in getting the court order necessary to have Cissy buried with Raymond, more than 50 years after their deaths.
At the back of the cemetery, by the railroad tracks, is the quietest part of the graveyard. Large, gnarled pepper trees drape the hillsides, where I find:
What kind of sorrow is she safe from now? I worry about this 26-year-old, what she had to endure while alive.
The graveyard's saddest part to walk through is the baby section. The math too easy, some just a few years old, some only a few days, some the date of death and birth are the same.
What about Mom's love? Did she die in childbirth? How, in six short months did this child warrant a tombstone with only Dad's love imprinted?
My cruising of cemeteries extends beyond San Diego to the East Coast—to the kind with moss-covered tombstones, some chipped or fallen over. Seventeenth-century Gothic script etched into one granite slab in a Vermont cemetery tells the story of a burning death in a barn. TMI!
Across that old graveyard, Mr. Solomon speaks the bitter truth to all of us from his grave:
Touché, Mr. Solomon.
It's peaceful, in a cemetery. Like a park without people, at least alive ones. Memories jotted on marble. I'm like an anthropologist of sorts. I've never believed in an after-life, but if I did, I'd have to say that it truly exists in cemeteries. Lives are imprinted on tombstones. Even if it's just dates—doesn't that tell a story, as well?