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The Shades: intimations of mortality


Etruscan necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy / ca550 BCE

τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν. / We are dead. Save tears for the living. ¹

The Shades is Agincourt’s formerly-Protestant, now non-sectarian cemetery located at the east edge of the original town site. Odd that I’m willing, even eager, to engage its design, while I’m constitutionally unable to cope with The Square and its focus on the memorialization of War.

The cemetery name, The Shades, invokes a decidedly non-Christian mythological reference to the dead — “the spirit or ghost of a dead person, living in the underworld” — reaching back to the middle of the 18th century and its fascination with the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. Subtle distinctions lost on most of us today. Indeed, cemeteries are little-visited by anyone under the age of fifty, if at all, and only under duress.

I have only fond memories of Saturdays with my grandmother visiting the grave of her husband, my grandfather, Roy L. Ramsay (for whom I’m partially named. We’d pack a shopping bag with some lunch and small garden tools, then walk the two blocks to the bus stop on Archer Avenue (by the Moffet Technical Center, but that’s another story) and await the Bluebird suburban bus. The Bluebird ran this route from downtown Chicago southwest all the way to Joliet, and along those forty-five miles there were several large suburban cemeteries: Bethania, Resurrection, and finally Fairmont, where we had family plots. There’s a fourth at St. James-at-the-Sag, but that’s too far.

Alighting from the bus, there was a greenhouse where my grandmother purchased geraniums, then crossed Archer and passed through the gates. It was a hike up the hill along a winding road between several mausolea—not much vanity at Fairmont—until we came out on the broad flat southeastern (and far less picturesque) portion of the place, with few trees and much more orderly placement of graves: efficient, economical. Jeffersonian, like rural America; gridded, like Chicago.

We’d remove grass and weeds from around the headstone, a distance of three or four inches. Then plant the geraniums, one or two on either side but always symmetrical. My job was carrying water from a spigot some distance away. Odd that I don’t recall what I used to carry the water. Then we’d have lunch, enjoy the passing clouds, the breeze, and finally walk back to the bus stop at the bottom of the ravine for the trip home.

This was an important part of my childhood rhythm.

I’ve imagined just one special interment at The Shades: Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn and, some years later, his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn, a far more savory character than hizzoner. But their mausoleum is also far less romantic than the example pictured above, the former Medill McCormick tomb at Winnebago, Illinois.”² It’s time for me to tackle the larger, fuller story of Agincourt’s rhythms of death, burial and commemoration.

¹ Many thanks to Dr Carol Andreini for her translation into ancient Greek of this phrase, inscribed at the public entrance to The Shades.

² The McCormick tomb was designed in 1927 by architect Raymond Hood, far better known for his Art Deco and Moderne design. Vandalization of the tomb by teenagers seeking a place to drink caused the family to relocate the burials and destroy it in the 1970s. So I feel at liberty to “borrow” the Medill tomb for The Shades.


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