Today’s The New York Times has a story about an attempt by his children to move the remains of artist Mark Rothko to another cemetery. “The potential loss of the Rothko burial place ‘is a big deal,’ said Nancy Poole, secretary-treasurer of the East Marion Cemetery Association. ‘He’s our only notable person.’”
That brought back memories.
In 1988, after completing my doctoral dissertation, I found myself with a few months free. I had been accepted into Peace Corps, but wouldn’t be leaving until August. So, when our little Brooklyn Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park needed a temporary caretaker, I took on the job.
It was a delight. That is, part of it was a delight. The cemetery, twenty acres mostly wooded, is one of the most inspiring and serene spots in New York City. I spent a great deal of time doing things like finding headstones that had fallen then had been buried under decades of leaves and blown dirt and restoring them to their proper places, mowing lawns, and tending to the plants. It was good work.
It was also nearly unbearably sad. At that time, AIDS was killing with a fury, and I helped many a young man find a spot for the ashes of his partner, knowing that he might soon be joining the other. Alone young men: families, unfortunately, were not often forgiving of gay orientations.
They knew, at least, that their ashes would be together under the gently swaying branches of ancient trees in a spot of real and lasting beauty. That brought them comfort–and me, as well.
There were visitors, too. Some coming to visit family graves, but others appearing at the cemetery gate for another reason entirely. For, like the East Marion Cemetery, we had our one celebrity, and the occasional fan would show up wanting to see his grave.
He was the actor Montgomery Clift, buried there beside his older brother who, much to the outrage of the peace-loving Quakers, had insisted he be buried in an artillery shell casing (he had served in the artillery, apparently, during World War II). Their mother had been a member of New York Monthly Meeting and had seen to the burial of her sons before retiring to a nursing home in California.
Which brings me to my memories—and to what I brag is my greatest claim to fame:
I buried Montgomery Clift’s mother.
She died that summer, and her ashes came to me for burial beside her sons. There was no ceremony—she had outlived everyone who might have been interested—except for my own private moment once the job was complete.
Her son starred in the first movie I remember seeing, Raintree County, not a great movie, but one leaving images as indelible fifty years on as they were that day from the backseat of the family station wagon at the drive-in. So I gave Ethel Clift a short moment of my time, after gently putting her to rest.
I hope no one ever wants to move any of the Clifts. They deserve an eternity of peace in that gentle spot.
Come to think of it, so does Mark Rothko, in his.