Walking home from Roger Williams Park a few weekends back, David and I decided to explore a cemetery we’d passed by lots of times, but had never bothered to check out.
We like cemeteries – the artistry of the stones, the interesting old names, the epitaphs, the morbid semiology of angels, hands, and weeping willows. As an amateur photographer, I love the monochrome stones in their symmetrical rows, the play of light on the inscriptions, the marks that time and weather and human mischief leave on monuments that were meant to be immutable. And as someone who craves narrative, I like to read stories into the stones.
Oakland Cemetery doesn’t look like much from the road. Entering from the park, the first interesting thing you notice is how many headstones vandals have knocked down, and how much trash has blown in or been dropped and not picked up. No wonder Mark C writes on Yelp (who knew that Yelp carries cemetery reviews?), “This dump is an embarrassment…I wouldn’t bury my dog here.”
Most of the monuments are between 40 and 100 years old. Walk on, though, and you find a row of stones dating back much earlier.
Mr. James Brown Merchant who died Oct 4th 1775 aged 73 Years. He was born in England: a pattern of Industry and an honest Man.
Stephen Rawson died March 14th 1773 in the 50th Year of his Age. He was of a noted Family of great Repute. His Life was Amiable and Strict Integrity with universal Benevolence justly marked his Character.
Alexander Black of the City of Coleraine in the Kingdom of Ireland. Merchant. He came to America in the Year 1748 and died in Providence Rhode Island on the 12th of Sept. 1767 aged 40 Years.
Mrs. Freelove Bosworth 2nd wife of Mr. Lewis Bosworth
These much older graves seem out of place, and they are. Brown and Rawson and Black and Bosworth and half a dozen of their contemporaries were originally buried in West Burial Ground, in Providence. They were exhumed and reburied in Cranston in 1870, when West Burial Ground was dismantled to create Hayward Park, which was demolished in the 1960s to make room the I-95/I-195 interchange, which was torn down and rebuilt further south in 2013.
But Oakland Cemetery isn’t only a place of neglect and displacement. Look a little farther and you see an unexpected jumble of colors cutting through the dead grass. These are graves from the last 15 years, lined up head-to-toe, like a traffic jam of the dead. Beneath the plastic flowers and the home-made crosses, the stuffed animals and miniature Christmas trees, the rosary beads and Red Sox caps, the votive candles and Hennessy bottles and last year’s dead leaves, you notice that the surnames are almost all Hispanic, and a shockingly high percentage of the dead are men between the ages of 18 and 30. Google the names, and another pattern emerges.
John Gabriel Espinal, a 20-year-old dental hygiene student, died in August, 2013 – shot dead by the new boyfriend of Espinal’s former girlfriend, the mother of his 2-year-old child.
Luis Dominguez, 18, died in July, 2010 – shot dead by a friend who was messing around with a sawed-off shotgun.
Nairobi Acosta, 20, died in November, 2007 – shot dead as he was leaving an after-hours party.
Luis Abreu, 21, died in October, 2007 – shot dead shortly after midnight, as he was sitting in his black BMW outside his apartment.
Omar Polanco, a 19-year-old Walmart worker, died in September, 2008 – shot dead at 3:30 a.m. from a passing car, a few blocks from his family home. The day we visited Oakland, Polanco would have turned 21. Mylar birthday balloons bobbed over his grave.
Among these newer graves is a tall, granite monument carved with the figure wearing an ornate robe. He holds an orb with a cross in one hand, and raises the other hand in blessing. The portrait set into the corner of the stone shows a handsome man with a shaved head, bright eyes and a benevolent smile. Below is an inscription.
Beloved father, son, brother and friend
Apr. 13, 1971 – May 31, 2009
Being a streetworker – it’s like being a peacemaker. It’s the thing you want to be.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9.
Cartagena died at 38, in a three-car accident on I-95. A former member of the Almighty Latin King Nation youth gang, Cartagena had a history of hurting people and 15 arrests on his record. In 2005 he joined the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a Providence-based nonprofit dedicated to combating gang violence and youth crime. The Providence Journal described Catagena as one of the organization’s “most effective leaders.”
I’m sure there are more stories like these at Oakland Cemetery. But David and I only stayed so long. It was awfully cold out, and we felt self-conscious, walking around and taking pictures, especially when other people came with fresh decorations for their loved ones’ graves. When does honest interest become disrespect? What’s a public park and what’s a private shrine? What am I to make of that little leap of excitement I felt when I discovered Oakland Cemetery’s story?
I was just starting to consider these questions when the impersonal became intensely personal. David’s dad died. We dropped everything and flew to Colorado – an event still too raw to write about here. Back home two weeks later, I picked up what I’d been working on.
When I went back to check Yelp, I found that a new review had been posted while we were away. “My father was buried a year ago this past march 25th,” writes Juan V, “I went and visit the grave and set some flowers (Plastic from dollar store) and today, Saturday March 29, the flowers are gone, don’t guess me wrong but that only happens in the Dominican Republic, and I know who did it, the person is from that country, what a disgrace, I don’t even want to be part of that community anymore. I feel sorry that my father is buried there.”