“I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK,” reads William H. Hahn Jr.’s epitaph in sardonic morbidity, causing the gravedigger to laugh in an “aw shucks” type of way. My laugh fades into a grimace, as the presence of gravedigger makes me feel as if I am in an outdoor production of Hamlet. The gravedigger’s laugh turns to hacking as he takes off his soiled gloves and exposes his hands, which are caked with cemetery earth.
“Last week, I helped a couple come up from Texas find this grave,” he carries on. “‘Where’s the funny one,’ they asked, so I assumed they meant this one and showed them.”
The digger is having a great time, as he tucks his gloves in his pocket and points over to where I can find the section of The Princeton Cemetery with the babies who died of sundry causes. “The baby graveyard!” he says pointing, as though it were an obvious venue of attraction. Here in The Princeton Cemetery, a place unofficially known as “the Westminster Abbey of America,” lie one American President, most of the early Princeton University Presidents, authors, mathematicians, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a famous murdered couple—a scandal to be uncovered later. But regardless of the generations of Princetonians of notable fame or notoriety buried since 1757, this man wants to show me the baby cemetery.
I give him a nod and suggest “maybe later” before I shuffle hurriedly over to the white house on the nineteen acres of property, where Claude Sutphen—former superintendent to the cemetery—now lives and serves on the Board of Trustees for the cemetery. The sign on the gate reads that the hours of operation are from “Dawn to Dusk” and that there are “No Dogs Allowed,” so Sutphen sits in a rickety chair and strokes the house cat.
He examines my countenance, as if he wants my facial structure for his underground collection. I gulp the peach pit in my throat, and I think of the geometry of my bare skull, how it would look.
If your attachment to Princeton is such that you would like to make it your final resting place, make haste! According to Sutphen, only 200 to 300 plots are available (for $2,500 a pop) before the grounds are covered and the cemetery resorts to cremation columns where urns are kept in round structures about the graveyard.
“We’re looking to expand, but you know how real estate is these days,” he says.
Land in Princeton is increasingly expensive, at a cost that discourages property growth. The high demand for Princeton plots adds to the cemetery’s scarcity of space.
“People go away to Florida or wherever,” Sutphen claims, “But they always come back.” Loyal Princetonians find prestige in the prospect of lying in such a landmark with famous figures and rich history.
With this allure, the Princeton cemetery receives two to three burials per week and other preemptive reservations for future plots; as such, Sutphen expects the cemetery to fill up in perhaps two and a half years.
On the subject of proactive measures with regards to grave sights, I see a tombstone with the name Sutphen chiseled on granite. I point and ask about the grave in the right corner of my peripheral vision, but Sutphen quickly responds, unabashed, “That’s my stone…I bought it a long time ago, some twelve years ago…I wanted it to be a certain way.”
Sutphen, 72, confronts death daily. Over the course of his 53-year career at the graveyard, several of his local friends have died. But never one to shy away from death, he greets it with beauty; he has a simple rose above his last name on the stone to stand for love.
This attitude, that of confrontation and acceptance of death, is crucial to Sutphen’s view of his job as a healer. In his office with a Dell Computer, a Deskjet 932 C printer, a Canon PC 320 scanner, black and white photographs of the cemetery, Sutphen sits upright in a white and blue button-down, chalky blue polyester pants, earthy-hued shoes, earthy-hued belt. He refers to himself as a gardener—occasionally as caretaker. “It’s just an everyday job trying to help people,” he says of burying the dead.
He speaks of the dichotomy of managing to help the mourning while also maintaining the historically prestigious grounds. “This is a showplace of the world,” he says, “But we enjoy helping people in a time of need. We really get close to them.”
The business of collecting the dead is not new to Sutphen or his line; his father-in-law, William Duncan inherited the business from his father Edward Duncan, and though starting with Princeton Cemetery in 1952 as a foreman, Sutphen became Superintendent in 1972 before passing the business on to his son in 1998.
With all its history and beauty, at times the graveyard seems more like a park than a burial ground. “What I feel here is beauty,” Sutphen says. “People eat lunch and sit on benches. I know this concerns death, but death is how you look at it. This is more than just a day job. It’s helping people look to tomorrow.”
The cemetery gives five to six official tours per year in addition to hosting myriad visitors, private showings, and school groups that tramp through the grounds. For example, Community Park, a Princeton elementary school, conducted an exercise in which students practiced basic math lessons based on birth and death dates on graves.
As Sutphen walks around with me on the grounds, damp with autumn rain, he takes pride in his knowledge of the cemetery and claims he has a the visual memory of the grounds to know where most of the graves—at “least the most important ones,’ he qualifies—are located.
He even points out a grave marked O’Neill; this man used to be the meter police, he mentions, and I can’t help but wonder whether people with parking tickets take pleasure in O’Neill’s current state.
Immersed in the spirits of Princeton days of yore and looming spirits, one will notice the names familiar to Princeton—McCosh, Pyne, Witherspoon, Edwards, Dodds, FitzRandolph chiseled onto stone. There is a nominal “old” section to the cemetery, but recent graves are mixed with the historic—those bending in the ground obliquely, and those newly chiseled, freshly polished. Angels take flight over crosses and the Star of David frames names on many grave stones.
Some of the older stones bend with the dandelions and clovers, as these slanting tombs of various geometric shapes bend—bend with time and the terrain. “We are trying to fix some of [the damaged grave stones]. We patch them up over a period of time, a period of years. But if you have graves from the 1700s–you get a big snow storm, and plink,” Sutphen says, onomatopoeically.
And through these years of history, the graveyard (though owned by the Nassau Presbyterian Church) has a diverse range of people—eclectic in its collection. Of those buried here with such diverse backgrounds, Sutphen says, “They are all under God here regardless of religious, color, or creed.”
Here lie Grover Cleveland, the twenty-second and twenty-fourth President of the U.S., who has a special ceremony with military attendant sent to Princeton from the White House annually to honor his birthday; Cleveland’s s daughter who, after her young death, gave inspiration for the name of the Baby Ruth candy bar; John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress, and President of Old Nassau; Aaron Burr Jr., Vice President of the United States and famous for his duel with Alexander Hamilton; James Johnson, an escaped slave; Paul Tulane, known for his philanthropy for Tulane University; George H. Gallup of Gallup Poll fame; and John O’Hara of mid-20th century novelist clout.
The biggest scandal of the cemetery lies with the local Menendez brothers, Lyle and Erik, who in a national shock murdered their parents in 1996. Before any news of the crimes was divulged, the brothers confronted Sutphen to buy two plots for their parents. “I don’t like to talk about that,” Sutphen begins of the scandal. “[The Menendez brothers] thought they owned the world. But the mother and father lay here, and people come to gawk or give sympathy.” Sutphen looks down and away; he tenses his brows.
Sutphen lives surrounded by death, by the deaths of his friends, by the passing of Nobel Prize-winners. But amidst this constant bereavement, he finds a philosophy that gives him comfort.
His outlook can best be summarized in the Cicero quotation in his office that reads, “The life of the dead consists in being present in the minds of the living.” He points to it; I read. Sutphen nods, and I return the gesture.
I go back out to the gloomy day—the air of thick porridge, sweaty weather—to putter around the grounds.
I do some grave rubbings, and I listen to the toll of the Dinky’s whistle in the distance. The same gravedigger is raking grass seed into fresh earth. He looks at me, as if hoping to lead me somewhere or to answer a simple question, but I turn my back, exit on to Witherspoon Street, and crunch on the slick, newly fallen leaves. I consider a potential plot, and I cough because I am sick.
Packed in Soil: a short story
By Jessica Gross
Come closer, come closer (my pretty, my sweet): let me feel your weight on my chest, the rubber soles of your sneakers marking my skin pink. I feel you, lingering, some feet away—hesitant, glancing shyly at this patch of grass, not raising your eyes to the stone that marks it. I feel your toe pawing the ground, digging up the grass in small tufts, loosening the dirt. I know, I know; but I can’t hug you, can’t pat your cheek in the way you hated but now you think you loved. Does your mother still close her eyes when she brushes her teeth, and do you creep up behind her, masked by the hum of her toothbrush? Do you scream, and does she scream, and jump, and spray her toothpaste over the mirror, and laugh, and kiss you with her foamy mouth? Tell me these things, tell me the smallest parts. Please don’t sob, don’t cry, don’t dampen this earth with your salty tears. It’s rained enough, a loud thrumming on the hardened ground. Why do you visit after all the rest have stopped? What is it about this place that draws you here—day after day, or month after month, or year after year? Since my eyes have closed to the sunrise, sunset, I’ve lost the cycle of time: I float in a black expanse, uninterrupted, thick, smooth, like a nighttime river. The sky, black and missing stars; the river below, buoying me forward, carrying me from one side of sky to the other, but the horizon blends sky into ground, and keeps receding, and I keep floating, drifting away, or toward. Still: why do you come? Can you hear me through the ground? Do you pity me? Do you pity yourself? Or do you like the silence most, the weight of a thousand bodies, unmoving, unbreathing, supporting your feet—the trees above your head, shading you, joining with the sky to press you from above, as we, the earth, push from below, securing you in an oppressive embrace, flattening you into a pancake, a point, a dot? Or do you like the feel of cool stone? The bodies nestled into tree roots, at angles with one another, no lines or rows? As you walk among the graves, do you read the stones, a thousand stories? Frieda Kulkenberg, Loving Mother, Sister, and Wife, 1942-1993…Ronald and Gretchen Lillard, The Last of a Generation, 1905-1987…Samuel Masterson, Missed Always and Forever, 1985-1989…Stella Brumstein, Boris’s First and Only Love, 1927-1998…Boris Brumstein, Stella’s Companion in Life and in Death, 1925-1999…. Your grandfather’s spot is filled with dirt, still, next to me. Our gravestone sits unbalanced, curving toward his grassy site, falling into the uninhabited earth. Margery Glickman, 1932-2003…Leonard Glickman, 1932- …They Laughed Their Way through Life and Into the Life to Come…Your grandfather picked it, and if I could, I would rub it away with my hands. There is no life to come, and I wouldn’t want one, just this plain stillness, this stark blackness, the dirt enveloping me. I hope you like to read it, though, over and over, to see me laughing, holding you on my knees, bouncing you, our mouths opened gleefully, our eyes sparkling—and, later, holding your hands, looking straight into your eyes, now level with mine, rocking back and forth, laughing too hard for sound, our fingers intertwined… I hope your grandfather is happy. Is your grandfather happy? Oh, stupid, stupid question, I mean to say did he find another, is there another hand in his now? Does he cry for me (but only once a day, or once a week, and smile the rest, oh please)? But does he cry for me? You linger, still, your feet so far away, your wringing hands so far from mine. Come closer, walk upon my grave, ignore the superstitions, sit upon my gravestone, I need to feel you! Are you wearing your hair at your shoulders, curved around your pert round face, curled behind your small ears? Are you wearing those tiny diamond studs, the ones you loved so much, the ones I pressed into your hand with my own? Are your eyes glistening with tears? Oh, wipe them away, read the gravestone, remember me laughing, remember the smiles we shared! Tell me, does your mother still read Jane Austen over and over again, does she chide your father for not being Mr. Darcy, does he laugh, his eyes creasing, and ask her to be more like the inventions he reads about, so simple, so effortless—and silent? And does she laugh too, and push him on the shoulder, and does he pull her near him, and do they kiss, and do you say, “Gross!” and do they pull away and grab your hands and kiss your cheeks instead, smothering you, so you pretend to frown but smile? And your brother—the baby, Gregory, our small curly-haired marvel, does he toddle into walls, and fall perfectly on the seat of his diaper, and grin widely, his mouth toothless, gummy? Or—is he grown now, tall, talking, toothy, a boy, a teenager, a man? Time passes, I know, but mysteriously, and without markers… I want to feel your skin, to touch the sheen of your hair and rub your nose with mine. The earth is cool and sweet, and alive, and moist, and all-enveloping. But I’m hungry for your touch, and your smell—and also hungry, really, for the feel of food on my tongue, the grind of mastication, the muscular burn in my jaw, the hot and cold of apple pie and ice cream, the smooth and tough of mashed potatoes and chicken, the salty and sour and bitter and sweet…. Tell me your life—your friends’ gossip, the last book you read, the smell of your pillow in the morning, the feel of the bus seat’s leather sticking to your skin, the heat of fresh laundry, the bark of the neighbors’ dog, the tinkle of wind chimes. Lie on the grass (it’s there, above me, I feel it growing, stretching upwards from my stomach to the sky); press your face to the ground so I can feel your words through the soil… I linger. You must leave—I feel it in your heavy sigh—and the stopped watch calls me back, back to stillness, back to heavy immobility, serene non-breathing in a ground teeming with life. Your footsteps grow fainter, shaking this earth less, and then less, and then silence…