Stew Thornley's Book of the Dead

A boneyard baedeker reveals
where the bodies are buried

"A lot of the time, there's no address for the cemetery," Thornley explained when I asked him how he tracked down these hard-to-find graves. "So you'll get something like: 'Turn left at the DQ, then go half a mile down the dirt road.' As far as finding the actual grave, somebody's always in charge."

In any case, a man systematic enough in his pursuit to track down Martín Dihigo's grave in Cuba seems unlikely to be deterred by bad directions. I asked Thornley why he'd go to such trouble to see a grave. He shrugged. "I don't collect baseball cards or books--though I have quite a few books. I collect experiences. Maybe I'll take a snapshot. But mostly it's about collecting the memories."

Certainly, some might view Thornley's hobby as melancholy, perhaps even a little morbid. But Thornley doesn't seem like a man much given to alas-poor-Yorick philosophizing; nor does he seem greatly troubled by the prospect of death as a nonabstract eventuality. The one time he admits feeling a little creeped out in a graveyard was while visiting Ty Cobb's mausoleum in Georgia. "He was such a bad man. There was this sense of evil emanating from there."

Writer Stew Thornley may be working in a dying field, but his subjects don't tend to complain
Craig Lassig
Writer Stew Thornley may be working in a dying field, but his subjects don't tend to complain

Thornley stopped at the tombstone of Harriet Bishop (January 1, 1817--August 8, 1833), who established St. Paul's first public school, and pointed at the fresh sod in front of the stone. "I mean, Harriet's down there, yeah. But is she really? Her body's probably totally decomposed at this point. So, no, there's no mysterial feeling for me. I like the research, the hunt of it all. I get to spend time outside and do some digging. Figuratively, I mean. For me, cemeteries are just a nice place to roam."

Thornley took another pinch of beef jerky and put it in his mouth, then leaned lightly against Harriet Bishop's tombstone. Two squirrels were chasing each other between the graves, leaving small contrails of dead leaves to drift down behind them. "On a nice day like today," he says, "where I have a little time, and the weather's good, sometimes I even hope I don't find what I'm looking for right away."

Harriet Bishop has plenty of time to wait.

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