The Boneyard

I park in the shade of the magnolia tree fifty yards past the mausoleum door, leaving the closest spots for the bereaved who creep and creak in to remember. I don’t know anyone stored in the body-sized drawers, but I go inside to use the restroom before my walk through the boneyard. The first few times, I felt like an intruder echoing down the corridors of the clammy cool granite and brass-filled building, with its faint odor of decay, but now I’m a regular.

My father-in-law was buried in a mausoleum. Before his internment, I’d presumed only the wealthy could afford the accommodations, but my in-laws weren’t particularly wealthy. In Illinois where Bob is entombed, a mausoleum makes sense for the visiting bereaved. At Christmas-time the year after he died, we drove through drifts of blowing, blinding snow to sit inside with him and the summers are no less rigorous on the other end of the spectrum.

I’m at a loss to explain the mausoleum in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Why deny the worms their due, as if embalming hasn’t hindered their work enough? Perhaps the mausoleum makes decomposition seem more tidy, where the inhabitants are safe from tree roots that stretch in search of nutrients and, finding them, grow large, pushing boxes open, tilting carefully-carved stones to dangerous angles.

Outside I wend my way around and up through the hundreds, no thousands, of graves covering the hillsides. I go around the pyramid-shaped mausoleum, which is behind the one with the bathroom, and climb up to the modestly wealthy families’ tombs, which  are finer than any cottage with this view that my little paycheck could afford. Here, as elsewhere, squirrels frantically gather and bury nuts from the picture perfect live oaks, planted at careful intervals. Hawks circle, noting the large bellied squirrels distracted by their work.

I hike past the University of California founder, past the stones of Julia Morgan, the ambassador of Micronesia, past Ina Donna Coobrith, California’s first poet laureate, past the locals and transplants who’ve left their marks on the world and lie here in the shadows of the captains of industry with their monuments up the hill.

There are hills covered with small stone rectangles that lie flat against the ground. I’d thought they epitomized modest means, but apparently they are also evidence of the evolution of graveyard philosophy and Mountain View’s partial transition to lawn cemetery design. Perhaps these hills of small stones are also monuments to post-mortem practicality and leaving what resources there are with the living. There is an Oakland-style Chinatown here, with Asian names and pictures of the departed on their stones. Here more than anywhere, I find evidence of the living. They leave flowers, moon cakes, jack-o-lantern, pinwheels spinning in the breeze, and generations of families gathered for a photo near the stone of their loved ones, long buried, but remembered.

My lifelong search for a grave with my family name outside of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, has come to fruition only here. I’ve found a reasonable sized, brown-colored stone marking the burial of two married couples. Their names are united by the symbol for a fraternal order. This Raymond Farrar is unknown to my family, with its own Raymond Farrar. He lies with his friends on a sunny hillside. I leave a rock on his stone each time I pass by. I pull the weeds from the flower vase built onto the stone’s base. Someone who knows those buried here removes my stones and leaves none, but I persist. One day I found a single daisy, freshly picked on top of the stone with no one in sight.


Dodging sprinklers that green grass,

I cross the street, scanning for traffic.

Half a block down, a cat-sized mound

dots the center line. Two crows argue

above in the trees. Cars zip

between me and the mound,

which ruffles black in tires’ breeze–

One car, two pass. Contemplation

from the ground and above.

Not cat nor crow, but a wig

animated in abandon. We nod,

continue with our ways.



A Human

We talk of her origins, humble.

Her election to power, the riots,

songs inspired by unbending ways.

The Iron Lady, not a token,

No, she would not go gentle

into night.


We avert our eyes in her latter years,

descent to dementia, the fading.

Iron won’t bend, but melts.

Did she gaze in the glass at her softened face,

Cling to mettle or release her hold? Did she

Rage, rage against the dying of the light?



Maternal Family Tree

Steaming bowl of cream of wheat,

which I hate,

sat before me, pocked with grape jelly,

which I love and pick out.

The phone rang. Morning dark made

the jangling ring jarring.

I was ordered to keep eating.


So H.C. died, did he? Maybe

Grammie will live a few good years after all. 

Mama coughed a hard laugh into the phone,

and turned to me, Keep eating.


Snowball the cat got eaten,

by a fox. Champie the dog was shot

after biting my little brother.

Now H.C., the old man who scowled from beside the stove

spit into margarine cups

and exposed himself to nurses in the Home

was dead.


When Snowball and Champie died,

me and Mama cried.


A week ago today, I started my day by getting dressed for an afternoon memorial service. The service was for the husband of an acquaintance and, although I have talked with her many times, I had never met her husband. As I  walked to the bus stop, I heard a familiar echo in my head:  “…walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

It did, indeed, feel like I was walking in that valley. It’s not that I was  emotionally connected to the deceased, but it felt like a solemn, sacred walk. The journey was calm and thoughtful, not driven by lament. And death’s shadow did not cast a pall on the day’s beauty, the way it can.

It was like standing in the shadow of an mighty mountain, awed with respect and reverence, but chilled to the bone by the damp air–not a place where one lingers. I felt a visceral understanding of death and the power of an ancient phrase offering comfort to those experiencing it. It was an oddly, unexpectedly holy moment.