The first funeral in my memory is that of my pediatrician, that white haired man who came calling when I was sick, who had a fluroscope in his office, who was a neighborhood doc setting the pattern for my expectations throughout my life. We didn’t go to the cemetery. I don’t recall my first such trip.
The family cemetery is Rodeph Sholom’s Union Fields. The plot number is 1001 purchased in 1910 to bury my father’s mother who died in childbirth. I’ve been there to bury my father and bury my mother. I’ve visited numerous times and learned how little I know about much of the family.
There is one place left. It’s for me, next to my parents.
Dad died when I was not quite 21, mom, more than twenty years later. I know I went to other funerals, at least one in the same cemetery. I’m not sure where my graveyard sensitivity comes from but I do have one.
When I worked in Kings Park, I was employed at a state hospital with a long history. Opened in 1885 as an extension of the Brooklyn Asylum, the Kings Park State Hospital was big, spread over 100s of acres, became a working farm and had it’s own railroad spur. It also had cemeteries.
In my time, the ‘90s, a rumor persisted that there were three cemeteries and that one had been disturbed/destroyed with the digging for the high school handball court. This only made sense because the high school was built directly across the main road from the hospital. (It had probably always been the main road.)
The large cemetery, a very sad place, was on a hill in the middle of town. The reckoning was that it held five thousand unmarked graves of hospital patients who died and were unclaimed by family. The fenced in field was marked at the end far from the entrance by a large white cross. I was told that this end was where the Catholics were buried.
There were straight rows of depressions in the earth on either side of the path up the middle; a path made with power plant ash.
The next section, not actually marked contained the Protestants and the area nearest the front gate was for Jews. The cemetery was closed in 1969, as full.
When I was the public affairs and community education director at Kings Park I was often given unusual things to manage. Regarding the cemeteries this included overseeing the visit of a woman who wanted to visit the grave of her mother who had been hospitalized and passed away there. Of course, her passing dated back to the large cemetery of unmarked graves with no specific grave identifiable. She had brought her daughter who carried a plant. I led them to the general area in which the grounds department had estimated she would have been buried.
The daughter, looking for her grandmother, walked out among the depressions, stopped and placed the plant down and stood silently for a moment while her mother and I watched. When she rejoined us we asked how she knew that was grandma’s grave? She answered, “I know.”
The big burial ground was succeeded by a cemetery on the hospital property, opposite the ash dump. These graves were marked with small numbered concrete blocks made in the hospital shop. Each had a number and a religious symbol denoting the religion of the patient there interred.
Before my time at the hospital the Jewish chaplain arranged for the Jews to be disinterred and moved to a Jewish cemetery. They had rested in a low lying corner down and to the left when you entered the gate. When I explored the cemetery the concrete blocks with the Star of David were broken and scattered in this corner.
The on-campus cemetery was infrequently used right up to the closure of the hospital. Before I left, the then Catholic chaplain asked me to accompany him to a burial there. I had never attended hospital funeral before this. the deceased had only one possible family attendee and I was being asked by someone I respected. As it turns out, He wanted me there for a specific reason. He pointed to the pickup truck with tools and suggested I keep an obvious eye on the boxes in it. You see, the hospital laboratory had recently been cleaned out and the boxes contained the specimen jars of a previous time: brains, limbs, fetus’, etc. The grounds department wanted to bury them with the deceased. This was not to be permitted and my presence was to block such activity along with the chaplain. Needless to say, the patient was buried alone as we stayed until the grave had been filled in.
These cemeteries hold the memory of one of the most important things I did in my professional life.
In the gateway of each of the two there sits a stone marking the ground as a cemetery. These were placed at my request, with my inscription, at the hospital’s expense, in the presence of my children, to mark these places in perpetuity.
I return when I can to see if the cemeteries are being maintained. At each visit chills and sadness run through my body, along, I admit, with pride for remembering them.
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