“I have been trying all I could to get down to the sentimental part of it,” Mark Twain remarked on the “subject of graveyards.” Yet, he concluded, there was “no genuinely sentimental part” to the spectacle we make of the act of decomposing. “It is all grotesque, ghastly, horrible.”
Perhaps it takes a higher degree of sentimentality to find the romance in the morbid; but I am capable of just that. Whenever I travel, I enjoy visiting places of interment, particularly those large necropolises with their temples and statues erected in memory of mortals who, while above ground, played a vital role in the workings of our large metropolises.
Bankers and bigwigs seem to insist on occupying the largest dwellings in the cities of the dead. There must be some consolation in knowing that, even when six feet below, one can still get folks to look up in admiration. Writers, by comparison, often have modest graves. They, after all, leave their impressions by filling volumes that, however small by comparison to a mausoleum, are apt and ample monuments to their craft. Tombs are largely reserved for those who managed no tomes.
Mark Twain’s own grave is an encasement in point. Last summer, returning to New York City from a trip to Niagara Falls, we had a stopover in the town of Elmira. Since I was in charge of both the map and the guide book, I made sure it was on our way. After all, the humorist from Missouri is buried there. The first thing we did, after securing a room for the night, was to go in search of his final resting place, which we found, eventually, along with that of filmmaker Hal Roach (shown here). However impaired our sense of dimensions after beholding the Falls, the stone (pictured) is less than majestic.
Close to it, though, is a larger monument, about twice as high as the number of feet I presume him to be under, which is precisely the length denoted by the cry of “mark twain” from which Samuel Clemens took his name. The cleverness of the tribute notwithstanding, I wonder whether the writer so honored would have welcomed such a column. Resting assured that monuments are being perpetually erected in the minds of those who read, relish, and recite his words, Mark Twain may well have been better pleased with a more modest disposal, given his attitude toward burials as expressed in Life on the Mississippi:
Graveyards may have been justifiable in the bygone ages, when nobody knew that for every dead body put into the ground, to glut the earth and the plant-roots, and the air with disease-germs, five or fifty, or maybe a hundred persons must die before their proper time; but they are hardly justifiable now, when even the children know that a dead saint enters upon a century-long career of assassination the moment the earth closes over his corpse. It is a grim sort of a thought. The relics of St. Anne, up in Canada, have now, after nineteen hundred years, gone to curing the sick by the dozen. But it is merest matter-of-course that these same relics, within a generation after St. Anne’s death and burial, made several thousand people sick. Therefore these miracle-performances are simply compensation, nothing more.
Besides, he pointed out (quoting a member of Chicago Medical Society, who was an advocate of cremation), “[f]unerals cost annually more money than the value of the combined gold and silver yield of the United States in the year 1880! These figures do not include the sums invested in burial-grounds and expended in tombs and monuments, nor the loss from depreciation of property in the vicinity of cemeteries.”
Mark Twain was born on this day, 30 November, in 1835; he died nearly a century ago and, whatever his views on the matter of tombstones, has well earned his keep at Woodlawn. Here he immaterializes for us in “The Adventures of Mark Twain” (Cavalcade of America, 1 May 1944), the voice being that of Fredric March. In light of Mark Twain’s remarks, I believe he would have approved of the memorial services a cost-effective medium like radio can provide. Radio gets rid of the body but keeps the spirit alive.