In the Asheville cemetery, O. Henry lies a little way down the slope from Thomas Wolfe and all his big family. On Wolfe's brother's tomb is the epitaph, "Luke of Look Homeward, Angel." Testament that fiction can be more real than life, or death.
In Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery, Ellen Glasgow, restless under the weight of the Old South's barren ground, sleeps beneath it in the Confederate pantheon; right beside her rises the obelisk of the plumed cavalier, that flamboyant hero, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
Across the land in California haze, the Salinas Garden of Memory spreads like a tract development by the highway. Industrial traffic is noisy near the graves, but beyond the long valley the hills are quiet. There is the flat marker of John Steinbeck in the family plot of those ancestors he so often subjected to his plots. I found on his grave two empty Mexican beer bottles and, in a wine bottle, a rose left by some pilgrim. The Mexican groundskeeper said "Steinbeck?" as soon as I approached him.
James Fenimore Cooper has his family place in the long low stone line of Coopers of Cooperstown near the Baseball Hall of Fame. James Whitcomb Riley has a Parthenon in Indianapolis. Hemingway's grave is hard to find, and Thoreau's is pointed out by arrows. I have been a pilgrim to all their tombs, and many more.
I love to visit graves. I don't go to rub brasses or discover whimsical epitaphs of the "Excuse My Dust!" sort that Dorothy Parker toyed with in her play with death. I go to cemeteries to visit the dead I've gotten to know in books. Their graves are our meeting places.
Because I come to visit, I'm bothered by empty tombs: Why are half the poets in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey not in Westminster Abbey at all? Why isn't Grant in Grant's tomb? I'm also bothered by cremation. While not immune to the grandeur of a flaming Viking ship or the romance of ashes sprinkled from a sea cliff, I'd rather be buried: There was that gray day in 1951, 22 degrees below in the Sauk Centre Cemetery, when in a strong wind Sinclair Lewis' big brother decided to open the novelist's cinerary urn over the open grave, and a gust caught the ashes and blew them all across the county, flecking Minnesota main streets with their famous native son. I'd rather be buried.
I realize that this urge for proximity with the inhumed past is out of fashion, but there is a literary tradition for paying such calls. It's a strong tradition. When I stood at Robert Burns' little white-domed temple in Dumfries, Scotland, I had with me Keats' "On Visiting the Tomb of Burns" and Wordsworth's "At the Grave of Burns," and Dorothy Wordsworth's description of all the "fantastic shapes -- obelisk-wise, pillar-wise" around the poet in St. Michael's Churchyard. And, not long ago, I took Burns with me to visit Poe.
It felt at first odd that Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore kept bringing back the image of St. Michael's Churchyard. Burns, though he had lived poor and died young, died cherished, buried in his home town with military honors. Poe, genius neglected, made of his death, terrible and bathetic, his last grotesque tale of detection. What was he doing back in Baltimore? Did he take the wrong train? What was he doing in the polling places of the Italian district? Loitering to cadge free drinks in exchange for votes? What was he dreaming there, unconscious on the rainy sidewalk, when someone found him, in a cheap shirt not his own, holding another man's Malacca cane?
They put him in Western Burying Ground, below the sexton's anonymous marker. No. 80.
What makes St. Michael's in Scotland so "fantastic" is the jumbled rows of upright red stones tipped this way and that, flat as giant book pages; into each is carved at considerable length the life accomplishments of the individual who lies beneath -- Andrew MacSuch was schooled here, served in that regiment, wed a lady from so-and-so, had so many children, rose from clerk to owner in some particular business which prospered, and so rewarded died and was buried here. All is individual and industrious, as befits a Scottish Presbyterian churchyard.
Baltimore's Western Burying Ground at Westminster Church is also Presbyterian, and among its crowded crumble of tombs are the same tall reddish stones recording merit. At Dumfries, Burns' white Greek temple looks out of place, and in Baltimore, so does the white Italian marble monument, with its acanthus leaves and its lyre crossed with laurel, that announces Edgar Allan Poe is here among the merchants, but not one of them. His tombstone arrived 26 years late. Poe's cousin had ordered one, but a freight train jumped the track into the marble yard where it was being carved and smashed it, and there was no money for a replacement. It is the kind of story Poe could have written. There is still no epitaph on the monument. Asked to provide one, a succession of the eminent literati -- Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier -- declined to contribute. They declined as well to attend the ceremony to install the stone. Only Walt Whitman came.
My wife and daughter did not want to see Poe's grave either. They had nothing against the poet; indeed, Maggie, 5 years old, had been delighted with the big black statue of the Raven in the yard of Poe's Philadelphia house, and she'd leaned forward from the back seat for miles to hear me read from "The Pit and the Pendulum." But they'd spent all day driving down a coast of dead writers' graves, Washington Irving's in Sleepy Hollow, Walt Whitman's in Camden, N.J., Scott Fitzgerald's in Rockville. And now, they took a vocal dislike to circling, lost, among construction and traffic of midtown Baltimore, at rush hour, in a rainstorm, looking for a grave. They were for passing Poe by.
Around and around in the gray wet dusk we drove, and passed Western Burying Ground twice before we found it. I splashed off through the puddles, clutching the camera wrapped in my jacket. The rain was now as sharp as needles, and Baltimore felt just like Poe's City in the Sea "where death looks gigantically down." The churchyard was locked. I was about to forget Poe too, when from inside the chained iron gate, the black medallion of his face looked right out at me: That sad dandy's face that rain was washing grime down. The face kept me pressed to the gate, where I was pelted from behind by the spray of speeding cars. I was certain the storm had been arranged by Poe.
I could suddenly remember no lines of his poetry except "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore,' " and "Bells bells bells bells." But feeling I ought to say something, I began to repeat aloud the single words of his titles, words that sound like ghosts and death. Israfel. Ulalume. The medallion cried, and I chanted Ul a lume in the rain. There was even a black cat hiding in the church door's shelter. Loose bricks and broken granite lay strewn in the walk and were piled on the base of his tomb. Weeds straggled over the fallen graves and red mud moved across the ground.
They say Poe wandered at night in Western Burying Ground when he lived in Baltimore, when the church had not yet been built on top of the catacombs. They say his taste for horror fed there on the pit of bones, common grave of soldiers of the Revolution, and on the tunnel tombs through which slaves were secretly led, and on the grave robbers, and the vaults that Baltimore derelicts would push open to crawl inside to sleep -- only to be locked up there, buried alive.
I ran back to the car, soaked and scared, at the heart of Poe's terror. Buried alive. "The Premature Burial." "Berenice," her teeth stolen from her tomb by her cousin lover. "Morella" and "Ligeia," more willful than death, who came out of their graves. In Westminster graveyard, near Poe, lies his cousin child-bride Virginia, prematurely dead in her tomb by the side of the sea. There was a cat that slept on Virginia's breast to keep her warm as she lay dying. They say Poe wandered delirious from his sickbed to sit at night by Virginia's grave. They keep the myth alive.
As we drove fast out of Baltimore, I asked my wife whether, like me, she'd ever feared premature burial. She said the thought had never occurred to her, and added that such worries sounded "Southern." I recall that a favorite children's riddle of ours, at home in North Carolina, was "How could Robert E. Lee be born five years after his mother was buried?" And the answer, of course, was that Mrs. Lee had been prematurely buried, and dug up alive that first night by graverobbers. Southern horror. A hundred years after Poe, we hid under the covers and told of long fingernails scratching at coffin lids, shrouds eaten away, unheard screams beneath the thick weight of dirt. The Confederacy born of a dead mother, and always rising again.
In junior high school, our literature teacher, Miss Taybee, recited with us from memory hours of Southern poetry more than half in love with easeful death. "Annabel Lee," she would tell us, dreamy-voiced, "died young, and she was Mr. Poe's beloved and he wrote this beautiful poem to her memory." And then her voice would float away to "her sepulchre there by the sea. / In her tomb by the side of the sea."
Miss Taybee's twin sister, the geometry teacher, was a stout woman who reportedly had a steel plate in her head that interfered with her concentration, but it was life that distracted my Miss Taybee, a woman delicate and slender and mad, in the Southern manner. Her hair, long blue curling wisps, swirled about her neck when she was seized by feeling, or by what she called "the fits." During thunderstorms, she would crouch beneath her desk, and holding up a thin ruffled arm, would wave her lace handkerchief in surrender to brute nature, and call on us to go on reciting "Thanatopsis" or "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Or Mr. Poe: "And the fever called Living / Is conquered at last."
Poetry took Miss Taybee into a distant country where not many 13-year-olds cared to follow her. She stood by the classroom window, thin fingers fluttering at her throat, and traveled beyond us down to death and past the grave. Deaf to giggles, blind to spitballs, she spoke quietly and slowly out of her dream. "Remember me when I am gone away, / Gone far away into the silent land." And so I have. So long the South holds concourse with its dead.
Michael Malone's most recent novels are "Uncivil Seasons" and "Handling Sin." His next book, "Time's Witness," will be published by Little-Brown in 1988. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Connecticut.