Allan Gurganus: What the graves give us

(CBS News) Cemeteries have provided a creepy setting for plenty of Halloween horror films. So why on Earth would Alan Gurganus, author of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" and "Local Souls," consider them the spice of life?

Every novelist needs a good dictionary -- and a nearby cemetery. That graveyard can provide you more than your final shelf-space. It'll offer historic bullet-points, a bird sanctuary, excellent fictitious names, and the lifelong source of such sweet calm.

My childhood bedroom in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, overlooked Pineview Cemetery. It seemed my own green playground -- a bit overdone with white rocks. There, under magnolias' shelter, adults staged our Easter egg hunts, tucking pastel candy among chalky graves.

This helped melt my child's sense of the soft boundaries between salty death and life's brief sugar-high.

In Pineview, bullies left us little kids alone; we felt defended by mausoleums looming like guardian aunts. One certain tombstone seemed to adopt each of us. Mine told of a boy-sailor drowned in the China trade.

Leaning back against Billy's tomb at age eight, I coughed down my first cigarette. Here I kissed my first non-family member.

Will an early love of burial parks make your own return, as honored residents, feel somewhat friendlier?

When grown, I finally sought a home all my own in another Carolina town. The realtor complained, "Found you one great Victorian fixer-upper. Problem? Damn thing's cheek-to-jowl against a Colonial cemetery."

"I'll take it, man!"

So today, I write overlooking the tombs of children, heroes, preachers and scamps, and several scamp-preachers.

A view of gravestones at Old Town Cemetery, adjacent to the Hillsborough, N.C., home of novelist Allan Gurganus.
Courtesy Allan Gurganus

My beloved boneyard daily unscrolls birdsong while sparing me construction noise. I inventory its stone crosses, its withered roses carved to look that way. Dawn greets marble uprights, then my coffee mug's steam. A signer of the Declaration rests yonder but I, alive, stay busy here, signing this your way.

Stones are my bookmarks, graves my footnotes. They help me resurrect the next tale, and the next. . .

Cemeteries, being mortal, require defending, too. I sure guard mine! And all of us who curate and memorize our nearby plot? We will soon discover how it -- in so very little time -- will, no questions asked, return the favor.

Amen.


WEB EXTRA: Read an excerpt from Allan Gurganus' novel, "Local Souls"

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