The poet tells us that death is the great leveler. Nowhere does that ring more true than a cemetery.
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.
So it was for the miners and their kindred, brought to live, work and die in Newcastle after coal was discovered in 1863. The Newcastle Historic Coal Miner’s Cemetery is where many of them were buried.
The cemetery is ghostly before dawn. The tombstones are irregularly placed, evidence of organic expansion overcoming any attempt at planning. It is a world of shadows and dull colors.
Towards the north corner and up the hill are the graves of two black men, placed at the edge of the plot in an unsuccessful attempt at segregation. For the time, it was remarkable even that the races even shared a graveyard. Death levels all.
Some plots are large and expansive, the legacy of multiple burials inside broad family plots.
Other graves are solitary, almost forlorn.
Here the book of life fades and nature reclaims its very words.
Some gravestones are rich and ornate, almost exuberant. Most of these are from a more modern time, with names etched in granite or marble. Which would have been an extreme luxury a hundred years earlier.
Other gravestones have failed to withstand the elements, leaving only trace hints at the identities of the fallen.
Gravestone technology has come a long way in the last century.
In 1921, a fire ravaged the graveyard and destroyed all the wooden grave markers. Any remaining wooden crosses are of recent construction.
Many of the gravestones are showing their age. Some lean at lopsided positions. Some are being buried in turn by years of rain and slope erosion. Some are chipped, cracked, even broken in two.
And in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t push up the daisies. You feed the moss.
Of particular interest are the gravestones whose three-link chain symbols signify membership of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. This Christian altruistic service organization was the original founder and organizer of the Newcastle cemetery.
Odd Fellows are asked to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan. The three links in their chain represent Friendship, Love and Truth.
This stone lies at the foot of one of the Odd Fellow gravestones. Once there may have been two other stones accompanying it.
The Newcastle cemetery combines peaceful anonymity with stunning intimacy. Baby Fee Swanson’s brother was interviewed by the Seattle Times in 1997. Nobody remembers the cause of her death.
In many cases, nobody remembers the names at all. They are lost forever.
When sunrise comes, the gravestones cast a long shadow and any lingering ghosts slowly dissipate into the ground. The air is alive with contrast. For a crisp, fleeting moment, it feels unusually good to be alive.
As the light floods in, the cemetery is exposed as a lawn with chipped stones. It struggles mightily to hold together the ancestral memory of a hundred and sixty lives, lived in a harsher world than ours with great dignity, joy and sorrow.
The mines that summoned them here are long-abandoned, their legacy felt only in place names and in the abandoned train line that once fed the hungry city to the west. As generations pass, the descendants of the pioneers grow fewer. Before long, all living memory of that time will fade.
A reflection. We build cemeteries to remember: to keep alive and bring meaning to that burning, wordless pain. We build them to forget: to capture errant spirits and enclose them safely. Under lock and key, hardwood coffin and heavy stone.
To the cemeteries we bring offerings, as our ancestors did before us, without knowing why. We are children burying our parents, gods whose vital energy we receive and pass on in turn. We visit the cemetery without a reason, only knowing that it is to be done. We leave parts of ourselves as nourishment, and bring back with us something from outside the world.
Here, underneath it all, lies coal; dark energy from a buried netherworld. Here, miners live fleeting lives, dig up ancient graves to give civilization its lifeblood, then return to rest in shallow seams of their own making.
Maybe we really build cemeteries to lie to ourselves. To ward off our own inevitable transience, to deny this cycle for the briefest of moments. And for a moment it works, so long as the stones endure and the names are remembered.
The complete Flickr set.