Growing up, I was only familiar with Albany Rural Cemetery in passing. It was just “that cemetery where a Presidentis buried.” I pictured it as being a fairly ordinary modern cemetery with long, even rows of polished granite headstones and little bronze plaques.
It wasn't until the year that Ironweed was filmed locally that I took an interest in seeing the Rural Cemetery. Area news stations did features on the filming locations and, since, some scenes were shot there (though the book actually sets those scenes in the adjacent St. Agnes Cemetery), Albany Rural Cemetery was among those places profiled on TV. In one of those news segments, I caught a glimpse of a stunning monument. It was Erastus Dow Palmer's Angel At The Sepulchre and I just had to see it in person.
On my first visit to the Rural Cemetery, I didn't find the Angel. I was, however, amazed at the Cemetery itself. It was vast (well over four hundred acres, I later learned) and filled with so many beautiful monuments that I didn't even mind not finding the Angel.
A few years later, I began exploring it from time to time. As my interest in history grew, so did my appreciation for the Cemetery which is the burial place of veterans from the French & Indian War to modern wars, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Patroons who owned much of what is now Albany County (and beyond), mayors, writers, merchants...I could go on and on (and often do).
Every time I set foot in the Rural Cemetery, I find something new. It might be something small: a perfectly carved rose with a gilding of lichen or a bit of rusted railing from one of the old bridges that crisscrossed the ravines. Or a double headstone carved with two almost whimsical soul effigies. Or I might come across names I recognize from local history like Paul Clark or Balthazar Lydius. They were famous compared to President Arthur, but they were still part of Albany's past.
Some headstones have tantalizing mysteries; like the gentleman from the Carolinas who died in Albany “while on a journey for the benefit of his health.” What ailed him and exactly where was he going for his hope-for cure?
On my last visit, I saw that the Soldiers Lot is undergoing restoration. I'm looking forward to seeing how that progresses.
Almost ever since I first visited Albany Rural Cemetery, I've wanted to know more about it and to write about it. I even started writing about it back in the early 1990s, but my manuscript wasn't much more than a magazine article in length before I set it aside. It just wasn't the right moment to undertake the project.
Ten or so years past. For various reasons, I didn't get out to the Rural Cemetery for a long time. In 2010, I went back and started rediscovering favorite monuments. It was almost like seeing old friends.
This time, it felt like the right moment to start writing about the Cemetery.
And that's what I've been doing for the past three and a half years. Much of the process has been research, both in the Cemetery itself, as well as in libraries and archives. Most days, I can't see the surface of my desk beneath stacks of books and photocopies. My bibliography is now longer than my original attempt to write about the cemetery back in the mid 90s!
When I took a bad fall in 2012 and seriously dislocated my right knee, one of my greatest concerns was, “How in the world can I finish my book?” It took a few months, but as soon as I was recovered enough to limp around with a cane, I was back out at the Cemetery and hobbling around the North Ridge.
Some of my research finds its way into this blog and The Church Grounds Project, but there are so many great stories I'm saving for the finished book. Some of the material I've found has never been printed in any of the existing books or articles about the Cemetery and some of it has been quite unexpected!
I've had a few people ask me if the recent publication of These Exalted Acres - Unlocking The Secrets of The Albany Rural Cemetery by the Times Union's Paul Grondahl and Will Waldron has any effect on my project. It does not. I have a copy of this book and look forward to writing a review of it very soon! But the focus of my project, the scope of the material and the approach I'm taking with it - are quite different
There are many days when I look a daunting pile of research or the word count of my manuscript or the list of graves I still need to locate and ask myself, "What did I get myself into?" Once in a while, I tell myself I was crazy to start it at all. Thoughts like that pass quickly and I just keep writing.
There's still some research to finish when the weather allows me to get out to the Cemetery, but this will be the year I finish this book. There are a few chapters to be finished, quite a bit of editing, and photographs to obtain. Then, of course, I have to look at options for publishing it. But, as 2014 begins, I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.