May 24, 2013 6:56 pm

The Diary: Alice Fishburn

In the US for a wedding, the FT Weekend Magazine’s deputy editor, a long-time cemetery fanatic, visits graveyards in the American South
Illustration by Like Waller of a woman visiting a cementery©Like Waller

It’s easy to moan about the time you spend on the wedding merry-go-round when you get to my age. A different couple’s name is scrawled across every other weekend in my diary with an exclamation mark that signifies a combination of logistics, excitement and what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-wear-to-this-one. Though as one octogenarian friend pointed out in unarguable tones, it’s better than life on the funeral circuit.

Even so, having many of your friends in another country – in my case, the US – does up the ante somewhat. Calculations suggest I’ve done 70,000 miles in nuptial travel over the past three years. And here I am again: sixth time as a bridesmaid, second wedding in South Carolina in a year, back in the immigration line once more.

. . .

All road trips need a name, and in our case “Four graveyards and a wedding” seems the ideal moniker. I’m a long-time cemetery fanatic – nothing connects you more directly to the lives of the past – and have spent happy afternoons dragging reluctant companions around plots from Kerala to Venice. But nowhere does beautiful graveyards quite like the South, all sprawling live oaks trailing Spanish moss, and history spelt out in stone after stone. You don’t even have to be as ghoulish as me to appreciate them: some are long popular picnicking spots for locals.

. . .

We start out among the blossoms of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, home to the grave of Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell (Scarlett O’Hara would not have approved of her modest approach to masonry). Another stretch contains grave upon grave of the civil war dead: 3,000 unnamed Confederates; an almost equal number of named ones, and the odd Union soldier buried among them, united in death if not life. More surreal is the old Jewish section we come across by the entrance. The mind boggles at what life must have been like for the man born in Hungary who wound up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the late 1800s or that of his neighbour, who made the journey from Prussia only to die in steamy Atlanta.

. . .

Our road winds on to Savannah, a living memorial to its own past. The historic district, a triumph of city planning, is laid out in square after perfectly restored square. In one, we take a trip around the splendid Mercer Williams House, star of the bestselling book and film, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, though the official tour is disappointingly sparse on details of the real death that forms the centre of that story’s events.

A few blocks away, I pay homage at the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, chronicler in her dark, twisted, mystical tales, of life and death in the South. It is just what an O’Connor fan would want. Tiny rooms decorated with religious icons, cages for the birds that appear again and again in her work, photos of a child who would shortly lose her father to lupus, the disease that would later claim O’Connor’s own life before her 40th birthday.

But the graveyards were calling. The most beautiful of all is Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, a legendary, sprawling burial ground perched above the Wilmington river. Local celebs include writer Conrad Aiken and Johnny Mercer, lyricist behind such numbers as “Moon River”. His wife is buried next to him: her stone, engraved with “Ginger” and the lyrics “You must have been a beautiful baby”, instantly evokes a bygone era.

The best, however, was yet to come. Near the water is the imposing edifice belonging to General Robert H. Anderson, officer in the Confederate States Army. Emblazoned on it is his signature line: “Fearless and faithful”. Nearby stands the much smaller grave of his wife. A single word tells her story: “Loyal”. I make a mental note to tell the bride.

. . .

Our next stop is another bit of history; a chance to play Kennedy and Rockefeller in one. The remote Cumberland Island, off the southernmost coast of Georgia, was once the playpen of gilded age millionaires. Now a national park complete with sandy roads and the odd alligator sunning itself, it offers tourists the chance to stay at the former Carnegie home, converted into a guest house.

We’re told this place had electricity before many cities in America and signs of affluence remain. The most obvious is on the windowpane in our room. The daughter of the family, Lucy, took it upon herself to decorate it one long-ago day. Scratches of her name and a teenage stick figure doodle are immortalised on the glass. Her tool of choice? A diamond that she happened to have lying around.

. . .

We move on to Charleston, where politics often takes the form of flags. What’s the point in having a historic house complete with its very own flagpole, if you can’t use it to make your views known to the neighbours? When I was in town last year, a coiled snake on a lurid yellow background fluttered all over the place. “Don’t tread on me,” it warned. Known as the Gadsden flag, it has been a symbol of US rights since revolutionary times. Recently, the Tea Party co-opted it and, just before the 2012 election, it was everywhere.

There were still a couple around this spring but more common was a grey, red and black number. Not an immediate design success, as we spent hours trying to guess what it was for. Some sort of historical cannon? A pro- or anti-National Rifle Association symbol? Wrong on all counts. Eventually, we discovered that the flag was protesting against the pollution from cruise ships lining up in Charleston’s ever-popular harbour. We’d never have guessed it was a smokestack but it’s proof that if people here can find a flag for something, they will.

I insist on the obligatory whistle-stop tour of a couple of Charleston graveyards – my favourite hosts rows of Scottish families, united by the odd carved thistle and scraps of the blue and white flag. Then it’s on to the most important stop of all, my friend’s wedding. It is out in the deepest South Carolina countryside, famous for its peaches and being the birthplace of Strom Thurmond, the veteran senator who once ran on a segregationist platform and was only revealed after his death to have fathered a mixed-race daughter. I’ve been to his grave on a previous trip but this time around, I’m set on happier rites of passage.

The day of the wedding, it rains. Fortunately, we’ve spent so many hours listening to country music on the radio that we have the perfect comeback. In the words of Luke Bryan: “Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey, whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky ... rain is a good thing.” A final circle of life for us to depart on – and an anthem for the run of soggy English summer weddings we’re coming back to.

Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine

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