Monday, October 31, 2011



On November 12th of 2005, a 50-ft section of the two-story high, 109 year-old stone wall that held in the north side of the Fulton St. Cemetery in Grand Rapids gave way. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, with no warning, at the highest peak, it just let go. Rocks and dirt tumbled all the way to the driveways across the street below, and it was only a matter of luck that no one was walking or driving down the road at that particular moment. The landslide closed one lane the street for days, as workers cleared the dirt and engineers tried to figure out whether the wall that remained was in danger of falling as well.

Thoughts soon turned to how it could be fixed. Arguments ensued between those who wanted it replaced as it was, to those who wanted a new, tiered wall, to those who said just put in concrete and be done with it. Back and forth they bickered. As it turns out, a year would go by until they decided to replace 500 ft. of the wall with concrete and a sandstone facade that mimicked the stone look, which was the cheapest option available to try and keep with history. It still was going to cost the city over one million dollars. When work started in the spring of 2007, the city estimated that it would have to exhume 11-14 graves to build a temporary retaining wall to hold back the hill while they built the permanent structure.

In the end, they ended up exhuming a total of 23. Twelve of the graves were unmarked.

Along that north side of the city's oldest graveyard, mixed with Civil War heroes and other citizens of prominence, were pauper's graves. They carried no stone markers, although the city had records of who was buried there. You never knew they were below your feet though. Not before this. Not before the city up and moved them, and then gave them stones after they were reburied. They knew the names.

They knew the names of all but one. And that's the one you see pictured above.

I walk in this cemetery from time to time, especially in the fall. It's big, quiet, beautiful, historic. Somewhere, in the four external hard drives of pictures I have taken in the past seven years or so, are shots of this entire event; from the collapsed wall, to the earth moving equipment, to the scar on the ground where they replaced the earth, that eventually faded with time and new grass - it's all in there somewhere, but because of the time lapse, not all in one place. What happened over three years, and all the squabbling over money and aesthetics, it's really a brief moment in the history of this land, a footnote that will grow smaller with time. Maybe someone will want to see it someday.

In the fall of 2008, nearly three years after the wall caved in, they set the small polished stones on the previously unmarked graves of the paupers. Names and dates that weren't seen before. Making my rounds this year to that section of the cemetery, as I came across these relatively new markers, I wondered why society would give more respect to the poor when they are dead than we do while they are alive. A lot of these graves were from the late 1800s. What could life have been like for someone who was poor back then? Probably not a whole lot of fun, especially in a judgmental, puritan place like Grand Rapids. History books may hold some clues about that period in time, but we can't know about the fate of these particular lives.

Well, we do know their ultimate fate. It's the fate that awaits us all. And with that knowledge, you wonder why we waste so much time worrying over all the trivial matters in our lives. Rich, poor, in the end, it really doesn't matter, does it? And we will never know about the life of this unknown, but I know that I find him or her far more intriguing than the famous and wealthy city fathers, with their large, ornate grave markers. They have had their reward, and with it, they become merely ordinary to me. Maybe that's a judgment that I'm making. No matter. Others will sing their praises.

But this person, this unknown, I always make sure to stop by every time I visit. And I think of the others who must be there, away from the wall, without a stone to mark their existence, and I say hello to them too.

Later...: Made the Community Spotlight at Kos. Very cool.

And as always, big thanks go out to the mostest fun blog evah, The Political Carnival, for being so supportive of my work. Tis a pleasure to be featured there, because y'all are just so awesome...