Death, Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets
PostedFebruary 19, 2014
In Spoon River Anthology, a collection of monologues from the dead in an Illinois graveyard, Edgar Lee Masters combines free verse, epitaph, realism, and cynicism to give living voice to characters who can no longer speak. Though the Spoon River of the title is the name of an actual river in Illinois, the fictional town combines Lewistown, where Masters grew up, and Petersburg, where his grandparents lived—and where the poet is now buried in Oakland Cemetery. His epitaph includes his poem, "To-morrow is My Birthday" from Toward the Gulf (1918):
Good friends, let’s to the fields…
After a little walk and by your pardon,
I think I’ll sleep, there is no sweeter thing.
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep.
I am a dream out of a blessed sleep—
Let’s walk, and hear the lark.
On first read, the choice may seem an unfit memorial for a poet who famously chose to let his characters speak rather than leaving them to rest in peace. Though a person may express their wishes after death, the decisions about how to celebrate their life are left to friends and family. Some poets' graves are more spectacular or elaborate than that poet may have chosen for himself. For example, the poet D. H. Lawrence’s remains were cremated, then his ashes were mixed in with cement to build an altar on a ranch in New Mexico.
Many others seem less substantial a final resting place than what the poets' work has earned. Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire, England, is relatively unkempt, despite the tulips often left for her. Enthusiasts of E. E. Cummings have little more than a ground marker to visit when paying their respects, in miniature next to his wife's Clarke family stone.
For those who visit gravesites of poets they admire, however, it is not about the grandeur of the spot, but about communing with the individuals. More often than not, a grave may seem a perfect fit for a poet: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, is marked by a large, naturally jagged boulder; Walt Whitman’s tomb in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, is grand yet rustic, lush with foliage and solitary—yet colorful, with American flags left by visitors.
William Carlos Williams’s grave is spare and straightforward. Langston Hughes’s remains were cremated, and the ashes were buried under the floorboards of the Schomburg Library of African American Culture in Harlem, under a plaque of one of his poems. Longtime civil rights advocate Dorothy Parker’s ashes were scattered in a memorial garden created in her name at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.
Because gravesites of famous individuals often become destinations for fans and tourists, it may be easy to forget that living family and friends also visit the spot to honor their deceased loved one—the person, not the icon. When poet Jane Kenyon died from leukemia in 1995, her body was taken to Proctor Cemetery in Andover, New Hampshire; a gravestone marks the place where her widower, former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, will someday join her beneath a headstone that already bears his name.
Browse Poets' Gravesites by State
|U.S. Virgin Islands|
East Coker, Somerset, England
Dartmoor, Devon, England
San Giorgio Maggiore,
Laugharne, Dyfed, Wales
Grasmere, Cumbria, England