Editorial: Christmas on Mountain Cemetery, a view of the living and the dead

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“He heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” – James Joyce, “The Dead”

Gravestones are loveliest in winter; nothing lends granite its cool shimmer quite like a soft December rain.

That rain cleared the air on a recent walk through Mountain Cemetery, where Sonoma’s history lies collectively beneath 200 tons of clay and sandstone. Mountain Cemetery is one of the more exceptional locations in a city of exceptional locations. Unlike many a haughty North Bay suburb of San Francisco, Sonoma’s first cemetery is decidedly old school. Spacious and hilly, it at one point encompassed 60 acres of land overlooking the town at the base of Schocken Hill. Ground broken in 1841, its soil is enriched by such renowned Sonoma bodies as named Vallejo, Boyes, Sebastiani and Montini. Walter and Celeste Murphy, longtime publishers of the Index-Tribune, share a splendid view of the city from about halfway up the hill. Mountain Cemetery is the final resting place of a soldier from the Revolutionary War, a survivor of the Donner Party and a beloved local pizza maker named Mary. Striking mausoleums of the forgotten mighty share real estate with a pauper’s grave inscribed as “Indian child, buried in the early days of Sonoma.” Much like the living townsfolk it awaits, the cemetery is one of extremes.

But in many ways, it’s a graveyard of regular folk, and everything that implies: Farmers, merchants, housewives and roustabouts. Blacksmiths, bootleggers, tycoons and murderers.

Given its residents’ many triumphs and, perhaps more so, their many sins, Mountain Cemetery on Christmas week seemed oddly tranquil. Untroubled by the times, as tumultuous and degrading as they sometimes seem to be.

One wonders what the dead would think if they could see us now. Enslaved by dreams of financial status, transfixed by thoughts of Facebook status. Over prescribed, under educated. And addicted. Addicted to screens, games, opioids, consumerism. Wine, nicotine, narcissism, pornography.

One wonders what Sonoma’s dead would think if they could see us now.

Would they see their descendants as the vanguards of benevolence who took in despondent refugees of the fire? Or as the armies of vanity preening their Saint Laurent boots Saturdays at a bubble lounge?

Are we the foot soldiers who gathered 425 boxes of food for those hungry this holiday?

Or are we the consortium who chose Christmas week to threaten to sue a small church over sheltering the homeless on freezing winter nights, as was reported in Janis Mara’s story (“Neighbors Vow to Shut Down Homeless Shelter”) last Friday?

The irony that the neighbors chose the week before Christmas to proclaim there’s no room at the inn in Sonoma would be amusing if it weren’t so mirthless.

Not only is Sonoma’s welcoming-committee yin and yang reminiscent of the Book of Luke’s tale of yuletide shelter-seekers, but it also harkens back to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, “Our Town,” about turn-of-the-20th-century Grover’s Corner, a small town populated by well-meaning people so caught up in the trite details and petty moments of their days that they’re rendered almost incapable comprehending the impermanence of life and love.

At the end of the play, the local cemetery inhabitants – equipped with an appreciation for life only held by the dead – witness the living townspeople existing in “a cloud of ignorance” – neither fully treasuring their lives nor each other.

“That’s what it was to be alive,” observes one of the dead. “To go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.

“Now you know,” he tells a woman who had just died in childbirth, “that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.”

One wonders what Sonoma’s dead would think if they could see us now.

Ignorance and blindness? Or peace on earth, and good will toward men.

Email jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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