The entrance gates are a massive, granite and wrought iron affair that would do honor to a Loire Valley Chateau. “Forest Lawn” is emblazoned across the top-center of these 30-foot portals, underneath a lacy, wrought- iron escutcheon. It is a resting place of note in Buffalo, New York. Inside the gates, it is the quiet that first startles you. That and the gentle rolling expanse of emerald green grass, studded with marble and granite tombstones.
An outsized likeness of a firefighter, in a peaked fireman’s hat, looks outward from atop a tall, sculpted column. He is surrounded by concentric rows of small gray memorials honoring the men and women who volunteered in that noble service.
As you walk the roadway, your eyes wander over an eclectic array of gothic stone memorials, interspersed here and there with a Celtic cross or a chiseled garland of angels. The names are grouped together, in death as in life. A chiseled rota of ethnicity marks the boundaries of the various tribes.
It is the German sounding names that first catch the eye. Schictel, Graeber, Kurtzendorfer. They, and a rolling array of umlaut- laden others, bring to mind the Rhineland, the Schwarzwald and other sections of far-away Deutchland. Buffalo was once populated principally by German-Americans. They were prosperous millers, brewers, printers and other industrious professions that the proud burgers either brought from their Germanic homeland, or learned from their immigrant parents. Who mourns them now I wonder? The soaring limestone epiphanies were erected here lovingly as monuments to the past. We wander through them now as others must wander through Egyptian and Aztec temples, appreciating the architecture and oblivious of those living, breathing, people who are memorialized in stone. I wonder if the far-flung relations, of these early settlers, know of this little patch of remembered Germany tucked away in upstate New York? In the far suburbs of Buffalo, some few of their descendants survive and prosper even today. Most of their descendants have died off though, making way for newer waves of Americans from all over the globe. Perhaps someday the granite pathway of these newer Americans will weave its way into the stone fabric that stretches out before me.
On a small hillock, with a modest memorial, reads the name “Fillmore.” Here lies the remains of a former President of the United States. A commemorative society pays him homage on his birthday, but most of the year he lies peacefully, at rest with his neighbors.
There are many artfully carved, life-sized memorials to children and spouses here at Forest Lawn. Each is a loving tribute, wrought in marble or stone, to a life that was treasured here on earth. All of the sorrow once felt at their passing is now a peaceful and time shrouded memory. The elaborate and impressive mausoleums stand like silent Greek temples, each emblazoned with a family name on its entrance portico. They are grouped, as their owner’s mansions once presumably were in life, in a fashionable and high rent section of the cemetery.
It brings to mind the Edgar Lee Masters work, “Spoon River Anthology.” You can almost visualize the ascending levels of deceased society lying in various ascending levels of granite repose. Do you think souls talk only to their own social class or do they mingle quite freely? Are they in some ethereal, egalitarian place that doesn’t recognizes temporal accomplishments? I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Those worries are chains for the living, not for the departed.
I experience a sense of repose as I walk through these peaceful surroundings. It feels like the friendly quiet of a favorite church when no one else is present. You are alone, yet have the sense of others all around you. Forest Lawn has a Gothic appeal to me that I cannot fully describe. I think that it is the history of the names that most interests me. I see emblazoned in stone, the names of the men and women who built Buffalo. Their names are remembered now only as street markers in the sprawling city and suburbs. They were soldiers, politicians, adventurers and pioneers. Much of the history of Western New York is chronicled here. Each weathered, stone is a chapter of local interest, remembered by relatives and academics, and forgotten by everyone else.
I wonder who, generations from now, will wander amidst these epiphanies of stone and ponder the many different names and the scattered criss-crossings of fate that brought these people here to lie in final repose? And I wonder who will pay homage at my own remembrance. Will representatives, of generations yet unborn, wonder what I thought and did in life? I see the yawning maw, of the generations yet to come, opening cavernously far beneath me. I know when I get there, it will be peaceful and quiet like it is here at Forest Lawn. That seems enough for me, as we walk slowly out through the gates. We leave those who reside here to lie peacefully with their neighbors throughout the coming centuries. We will join them soon enough.
Joseph Xavier Martin