BY BETH ANN FENNELLY
Photo: Mike Stanton
My husband and I have been married for 19 years, so I think it’s unsurprising that our preferences and opinions rarely surprise each other.
It’s not merely that we can finish each other’s sentences. It’s that we predict them. It’s a wonder that we converse at all, given the efficiency of marital telepathy.
But one afternoon last fall, Tommy mentioned that he’d heard St. Peter’s Cemetery—the one on Jefferson, where Faulkner is buried—was running out of room.
“Huh,” I said. I didn’t like the idea, but supposed it didn’t matter. “Well, we’re gonna be cremated anyway.”
“I don’t want to be cremated.”
“You don’t want to be cremated? Really?”
He shook his head. “Really.”
Had we never discussed this? We’re environmentalists and pragmatists, so I’d assumed we’d go the dust-in-the-wind route.
“I want a grave,” he continued, gravely. “I want a headstone.”
“Well, if you want to be buried, then I want to be buried. I want to be beside you. And if we’re to be buried, I want us to be in St. Peter’s.”
By 5 p.m. that afternoon, we owned a second address in Oxford.
Newer cemeteries tend to be built on cheaper land on the outskirts of a town, but St. Peter’s is right in the center, a reminder that, as one of my freshmen at Ole Miss wrote once in a paper, “Death is an important event in everyone’s life.”
Even now many Oxonians share names with the leaning, moss-darkened stones.
Not my family; we’ve only lived here fifteen years, but I still take a proprietal interest in the “cedar-bemused” cemetery, as Faulkner described it, probably because we live close enough that sometimes spring storms blow plastic bouquets onto our lawn.
When I go running, I often wind my way through the cemetery’s quiet loops, passing the circle of cedars, the grave of the Revolutionary War hero, the plots of L.Q.C. Lamar and Col. Falkner’s obelisk, and over to his great-grandson’s grave.
As a writer, it comforts me to know that pilgrims still pay homage to this artist whose words outlive him. I peer at the graveside offerings, flowers and flags and pens and pennies, stones and notes and always, always liquor bottles, as the tradition is to take a swig and then offer one to Mr. Bill.
Certain gatherings—the Oxford Conference for the Book is one—don’t seem complete until a late night ends with a circle of writers at his grave passing a bottle of brown liquor (I confess—maybe once or twice, an empty placed back on his tombstone could have borne the faint imprint of my lipstick).
One time, a few years back, I found on his grave a clump of mardi gras beads and paper kazoos and a “Happy 21st Birthday” hat. Say what you want about “The Little Easy,” as my pal Jim Dees has termed Oxford. People still read here. I want to set my weight down in place where a youth marks the passage to adulthood with a midnight toast to Mr. Bill.
I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve been to a handful of graveside ceremonies in St. Peter’s, and when I run through I like to visit my friends. Down the hill from Bill lies his niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, kind to us from the moment we moved here; I still have the baby blanket she knit our middle child.
Back toward Bramlett and off to the left is the stone bench where I pay respects to my former colleague and pal, Barry Hannah. For a long time, a cap gun with those the loud-popping pellets rested against his headstone, way more Hannah-rific than plastic lilies. His stone reads “Author of Air Ships,” and I think Barry might grin that irascible grin of his to see this final typo, as the title of that great book is Airships, one word.
The plots my family purchased are in the less-desirable lowlands, the newer part, near a paved roundabout, but because there are five of us, we couldn’t be choosy. The funeral home salesman conceded the flat area isn’t as picturesque but noted that it’s easier to set up folding chairs, and the elderly “can drive up right close for the graveside service.”
And when he said that I pictured, for the first time, our children as older adults. I’d imagined already that my 75-year-old mother might one day need a walker or wheelchair. I’d never pictured my five-year-old son needing, in seventy years, the same.
It was a sobering vision, and an expansive one, as elastic time stretched its boundaries for me then. But isn’t that what reminders of mortality are for? So when we return our stretched eyes to the faces of our loved ones, we see them more freshly, more fiercely?
I’ve told a few folks about our impulse buy, and they always laugh, a bit shocked, as if they feel I’m being unduly morbid. I feel I’m being duly morbid. We all have to go sometime. When it’s my turn—hopefully, many decades hence—I want to be here.
Oxford is home. Eternally.
Beth Ann Fennelly is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and director of the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Mississippi.