As a child, Shannon Applegate had little experience with death or dying, and she didn't attend a funeral until she was 26 years old. That she ended up...
As a child, Shannon Applegate had little experience with death or dying, and she didn’t attend a funeral until she was 26 years old. That she ended up, in her middle age, as caretaker of a cemetery in rural western Oregon is one of the many delightful quirks of this delightful memoir, “Living Among Headstones: Life in a Country Cemetery” (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 312 pp., $24.95).
A mother of six grown children and a community historian, Applegate inherits the care of the family-owned Applegate Pioneer Cemetery, near the town of Yoncalla, where her great-great-grandparents settled in the middle of the 19th century. She helps families buy grave sites and headstones, negotiates with funeral homes and morticians, arranges for burials and hires gravediggers. A large aspect of her duties is overseeing maintenance of 5 acres of bucolic cemetery grounds, a tract of land that includes more than 75 large trees, a mixture of broad-leafed trees, cedar and fir, some of them ranging up to 200 years old.
Shannon Applegate will discuss “Living Among Headstones: Life in a Country Cemetery” at these area locations:
• At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
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• At 7 p.m. next Friday at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
• At 7:30 p.m. June 25 at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 orwww.elliottbaybook.com).
Her unusual yet ancient calling is an ideal platform for Applegate’s keen and thoughtful observations about small-town America, while mixing in morsels about cemetery and funerary traditions, cremation and “grave goods,” or decorations.
Egyptians were buried with ornate headdresses and chests inlaid with precious stones, she wryly notes, while contemporary American grave sites are adorned with Mylar pinwheels, football cards and Scooby-Doo toys. She initially scorns the kitsch, but grows to recognize that the gestures are heartfelt: “After all, the metaphor is clear: Over time, everything disintegrates, gradually disappears. Memories and memorabilia fade, and so do we.”
Applegate has a knack for storytelling and a sincerity that can’t be faked. Never overloading her tales with extraneous details, she lets them unwind in their own manner. Her understated style perfectly suits the subject matter: the unspectacular but dignified lives of these mostly working-class people.
There’s Mr. Boyle, an indigent veteran, whose cremated remains cannot be located until Applegate intervenes and investigates. At the grave of Luke, a 16-year-old boy who committed suicide, she is horrified, during a chance encounter with two of Luke’s friends, to spot a ceramic figurine from the grave of her own granddaughter. It’s presumably stolen, but she bites her tongue, and in the ensuing conversation with the boys, she gains a new understanding of the dead teen’s troubled life, and an answer to her question, “Why do you think he did it?” In a story that reappears throughout the book, she forms an unexpected bond with the family of a stillborn baby.
The losses are also deeply personal. In the span of seven months a few years ago, she suffered the deaths of her beloved half-brother, Rex, a good friend and her father. The arrangements for Rex’s funeral and burial reflect the complexities of modern life. There are ceremonies for him in Houston and Tucson, Ariz. Part of his remains are buried in Oregon and part in Mexico City, where Applegate travels to deliver them.
She writes: “What a tangle American families are these days: multiple marriages and divorces; whose child is it, most? To whom does all that remains of that child belong? Which parent, which side of the family? Which cemetery?”
Although the book’s diversions sometimes wander too far afield — the burial practices of ancient Greeks and Romans may be on topic but the descriptions feel like due diligence — Applegate always returns to the stories of interest and import: the simple lives and deaths of real people.
And what better place to contemplate universal truths than a graveyard? In words both tender and wise, she conveys the everyday sacredness of place, her home: “Across the valley, the cemetery rises on the ridge above the town; it is invisible at this moment, bathed in night, but I can feel it. It is a dark safe place just southeast of yard lights and streetlamps whose halos seem to shoot sparks, as I cry.”