My daily routine lately includes a 60-90 minute walk through the neighborhoods of southside Richmond
; Blackwell, Manchester, Forest Hills. One of my favorite detours along the way is a walking trail through Mount Olivet Cemetery, ironically
situated right next to the Phillip Morris
tobacco leaf curing plant on Jefferson Davis
Highway. I suppose you could say I’ve collected cemeteries like this throughout my life: the Civil War
cemetery at U.Va., in Charlottesville; Arlington Cemetery
and Rock Creek Park
Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
; the Revolutionary War
cemetery near Princeton
; the cemetery in downtown Raleigh; and even the family cemeteries on the farms in Stony Point, where I grew up. Something in the serenity and repose
of a cemetery –- any cemetery –- speaks to me, and helps me hear that small, still voice
in the back of my head.
Mount Olivet is typical of most urban cemeteries I’ve seen. Surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, it’s closed to the public and patrolled by security from sunset to 7:00 in the morning. While individual trees and shrubs are scattered throughout the grounds, no groves of trees or bushes –- hiding places for potential vandals –- can be found. There aren’t even any seats or benches for those seeking to pay their respects, for fear of attracting vagrants.
Despite these precautions, Mount Olivet retains its grace and charm. A powerful memorial to Richmond’s World War I and World War II veterans is nestled in a dell on the cemetery’s north side. A small stream winds its way through the grounds. A quaint wrought-iron gate stands guard over the only walking entrance, hidden on the tree-lined road bordering the cemetery’s west side.
A brief digression on this particular gate, the likes of which I frankly have never seen before. Perhaps eight feet across, six feet high, with its top describing a gentle arc cresting at the center, the gate was comprised of eleven rusted, wrought-iron poles joined by four cross beams. But what set this gate apart was how it swung.
Most gates pivot on one side or the other; left or right, take your pick. And while I’d certainly see turnstiles and revolving doors that pivoted on their center, I’d never seen a gate that did so. That doesn’t mean such gates don’t exist, mind you. I’ve just never seen one.
Until yesterday, because this one did. A fifth cross-bar, fixed to concrete posts on either side of the gate, provided upper support for the gate’s extended center pole. Two metal wheels fixed to the bottom of the center pole spun in tracks set into the concrete walk below. The end result was a gate that swung inward when you pushed on either side. And thanks to some kind of weighting system I wasn’t able to figure out, the gate swung slowly back to center once released. Amazingly enough, it did all this without a sound, the rust and obvious age notwithstanding.
Now, I know this is a minor thing, but something about this gate in the middle of nowhere just caught my fancy. Having grown up near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and being a former physics major to boot, little gadgets like this just naturally appeal to me. Particularly where, as here, the piece of clever technology and workmanship is tucked away in some innocuous corner, far from everyday view.
Yesterday morning I saw a family marker, near the top of the hill, under a great oak tree, that brought me up short. It was a gray marble tombstone, standing about four feet high. The front face was burnished smooth, and the family name “Monroe” was carved near the bottom. At the top of the stone were three words: Wife; Infant; Husband. Under “Wife” the stone read:
Lula L. Cuthrow
Beloved Wife of
Orville N. Monroe
June 29, 1892
October 21, 1918
Faithful in Life
Cherished in Death
Under “Infant” the stone read:
Infant Son of
O.N. & Lula L. Monroe
October 12, 1918
Under “Husband,” the stone was blank, nearly as smooth and shiny as the day it was made. The gears in my head started turning. What had happened? Where was Orville Monroe, the husband and father?
Clearly, the child died at birth. Whether he was stillborn or died after being born alive I could not say. The stone was silent. The mother, 26 years old, was likely injured during childbirth, and died, heartbroken, nine days after her newborn son.
But why was the husband absent? Was he overseas, fighting the war, when he lost his family? Was he buried in some soldier’s grave across the Atlantic? I thought not. The stone described Lula as a “Beloved Wife,” not a “Beloved Daughter,” so it was probably put there by the grieving husband, and not Lula’s parents.
Nor could the husband still be alive. Assuming he was near his lost wife in age, he would be nearly 115 years old today. Perhaps, I thought, he had moved on with his life, finding a new wife, raising a new family. Maybe he was resting with other loved ones, in some cemetery far away.
But I feared the worst. A woeful picture pushed its way unbidden into my mind’s eye. His heart broken and spirit crushed by the death of his wife and son, I saw Orville Monroe descend into a well of despair and alcoholism from which he never recovered, dying a pauper’s death homeless and alone.
Sitting on the grass next to the stone, I wept silently for Orville Monroe, a man I never knew. I prayed that he found something in his life to lighten the burden of his loss, if only for a brief time.
I received the happy answer to my prayer faster than I could possibly have expected. As I turned to leave, I noticed the next family plot was “Monroe,” as well. It seems that Orville remarried after all, a little over a year after Lula’s death. He had another son, Orville Jr., a year after that. Orville Sr. lived a long life, dying in 1967, after 48 years of marriage. His second wife, Alice, followed him two years later.
Good for Orville, I thought to myself. And I walked away, my spirits lifted by thoughts of tragedy, hope, and a life recovered from unimaginable loss.