Going to cemeteries to visit the graves of dead, famous people… it’s an uneasy experience. With no personal connection to the dead, famous person I’m visiting, am I just being a tourist? Is it just crass to disturb the peace of the dead?
Whatever the case, I do it anyway.
The peace at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira in upstate New York belies the stories behind the people buried here.
* On June 3, 1844, John Jones escaped from a plantation in Virginia; settling in Elmira, he helped hundreds more slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.
* During the Civil War, Confederate prisoners were held at a POW camp near Elmira in appalling conditions. The prisoners who died of malnutrition, exposure, small pox are all buried here.
But today, I came to see Mark Twain’s grave. It’s in the Langdon family plot (his wife’s family, who were from Elmira). It’s an unassuming grave, though there’s a gigantic monolith honouring Twain to the left. I feel curiously detached and not a little guilty. Why just come to see Mark Twain when all these other people with their stories are screaming at me? (1) I feel like a tourist. A tourist who really oughtn’t to be here.
I look at the other graves in the Langdon plot, one catches my eye—the grave of his daughter, Jean Clemens. I’m drawn in and I’m no longer a tourist looking at remote lives: I see such a personal story that I can’t help but picture what happened.
IN MEMORY OF
JEAN LAMPTON CLEMENS
A MOST DEAR DAUGHTER.
HER DESOLATE FATHER
SETS THIS STONE.
And then on the side:
“AFTER LIFE’S FITFUL FEVER
SHE SLEEPS WELL”
Which is very nearly a quotation from Macbeth (“he” has become “she”).
Jean Clemens suffered from epilepsy with frequent seizures. Sshortly after her mother, Olivia died in 1904, Jean was sent to an Epilepsy Colony, in Katonah, NY. By and large, Epilepsy Colony were awful, brutal places. Jean was there from 1906-1909. When she died of drowing on Christmas Eve 1909. She’d probably had a seizure in the bath. She was twenty-nine.
The image of Twain burying his daughter is painful to imagine. By 1909 his wife and three of his four children were dead. The devastation must have been appalling.
Twain himself died four months later, in April 1910.
1) I feel like Ivan Ivanovitch, the writer in Dostoyevsky’s story Bobok. Lingering in a graveyard after a funeral, Ivan hears voices from the graves, chattering and incessantly talking to each other. It’s a very funny story (not something one usually says in the same breath as “Dostoyevsky”).