From The Desk Of Kelly Hogan: Cemeteries

KellyHoganLogoNeko Case has called her pal Kelly Hogan “the Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll.” Her name appears in the credits for albums by Mavis Staples, the Mekons, Will Oldham, Matt Pond PA, Amy Ray, Giant Sand, Archer Prewitt, Alejandro Escovedo, Drive-By Truckers, Jakob Dylan, Tortoise and many others, Case included. Hogan’s fourth album has been a long time coming, in part because she’s been busy as a crucial part of Case’s band (anyone who’s seen Case live has witnessed Hogan’s amusing banter), in part because of the nature of the project. For I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti-), Hogan sent letters to her songwriter friends, many of whom she’d sung with, asking them if they would send her a song, either one written specifically for her or one that “you think I could do right by,” as she said. That process started several years ago, and results yielded songs from a veritable who’s who: Vic Chesnutt, Stephin Merritt, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, Janet Bean, M. Ward and others. Hogan will be guest editing all week. Read our recent feature on her.

Hogan: “Let me die in my footsteps, before I go down under the ground … ”

No offense, but how come we put dead folks away in what look like giant marble filing cabinets? And how about those vacuumed-looking cemeteries that just have plastic flowers sticking up out of the ground, looking like a second grader’s drawing of a garden? My dead friend is stuck in one of those, and you’re not even allowed to leave a rock when you visit. It makes death look all tidy—when living is so dang messy.

Cemeteries used to be more like actual living spaces. People would bring picnics and make a day of visiting with the departed, and I guess I sort of try to do that in a small way. I live in a little town of about 5,000 people in southern Wisconsin, and I spend a lot of time at my local cemetery. I’m there right now as I write this (ooooOOoooOOooooo … ), but I feel good—not creeped out at all. It’s very familiar to me now, and I know a lot of the headstones by heart. Man, I hope these 1890s dead people don’t mind me coming here and addressing them by their Christian names: “Hey, Elmer!” “How’s it going, Ruth?” “S’up, Hezekiah?”

I always bring my dogs with me, and they chase the tennis ball in an open field beyond the headstones (we always leave the ball for next time atop a gravestone with a cocker spaniel carved above a woman’s name.) There are rabbits and squirrels running around all over, song birds in the cedar trees, and it’s the best place in town to see the sunset—and it’s also the best place to read the “stories”—the graves that have details, personal things about them.

There are the palpably sad graves of children, with lambs and teddy bears chiseled in; the very cool-looking Woodsmen of the World headstones carved to look like huge logs; oval photographs of deceased folks set into headstones under glass; the more modern headstones with icons of folks’ hobbies carved above their names (fishing poles, lots of Harley Davidsons, hunting rifles, garden tools, ice skates, an apple pie) and a lot of gravestones here have photorealistic pictures of the deceased’s barns and houses, or aerial views of their farmsteads carved into the stones.

There are love stories all over the place—a Green Bay Packers logo above the wife’s name, and a Chicago Bears logo over the husband’s, and yet somehow they stayed married for 42 years. Together on another stone we have “Mim” and “Pap” with arrows pointing to each other’s names with the words “I’m with her” and “I’m with him” carved below.

At many graves, iron shepherd’s crooks hold hanging pots of wilting geraniums and mums. The crook at one grave is welded together out of the deceased man’s tools—hammers, saws, wrenches, pliers, and his tape-measure holster—and he’s pictured on his stone in his overalls with his toolbox. Another grave of a farmer is decorated with John Deere windsocks and was planted with a short row of corn this summer. It was the best crop I saw in the entire county during the drought.

There are fancy tombs with stained glass windows, beautifully carved black granite stones with art-deco font, and a 30-foot tall ostentatious pillar from the early 1900s marking the graves of the family whose name is on the town library. But there are also humble graves of all kinds—like the one marked only with two wooden paint stirrer sticks stapled together into a cross, with “in death there is no pain and no cring (sic)” written on the cross in lowercase letters in black Sharpie. This grave has frequent visitors, as I always find one fresh unsmoked Marlboro and a new Bic lighter placed neatly on top of the grass.

Solar lighting seems to be a popular item to put at grave sites now, and I can totally understand how you’d want to leave a light on for someone you miss. It sure is a beautiful and eerie thing to see—as the sun goes down and the color-changing orbs and hummingbirds and butterflies and angels slowly light up one by one and glow down the rows of headstones.

Now all this being said, as far as I’m personally concerned, I’m gonna be what I call a “Future Cadaver of America”—donating my whole body to science, etc., but I’m not worried about it. Courtesy of a medical-student friend, I actually saw a cadaver once. It was a very old lady with wavy white hair, probably in her 80s, naked on the stainless steel draining table, with formaldehyde dripping away. They must’ve been studying the anatomy of the hand that week, because all the skin on her hands was cut away to show the wrist and finger bones and tendons, and only the tips of her fingers were still intact. I’ll never forget that she had long perfectly manicured fingernails painted with a frosted strawberry-colored polish. Details. Part of her story.

When the medical students are done with me, they can just cremate anything that’s left over and sweep it away somewhere. Maybe some dogs of the future will be chasing a tennis ball and kick up a little of my dust and I’ll fly.

Video after the jump.

One reply on “From The Desk Of Kelly Hogan: Cemeteries”

I believe that even dead people should be given respect when they are laid down in their resting place. I’m glad that there are cemeteries that is being preserved and respected.

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