``Grave diggers are a dying breed, and the `forget me nots' are now plastic. Mechanical claws moan in a dialect of clanking diesel engines, excavating new homes for old people. The vaults are closed and the combinations forgotten. The secrets of the dead shall forever rest in peace and leave the living to ponder.''
When I wrote about cemeteries a month or two ago, a friend, Chris Carroll, followed with the above comment – fine, poetic and essentially true.
Of course, the people you find in cemeteries are not always old. You come across infants and children, or young men or women who had just started out on their adults lives but were cut short. For some reason, they strike me as the saddest.
And one supposes some places there are still gravediggers who still use shovels and not mechanical claws.
Monterey, in California, has two cemeteries side by side, the city's Cementario El Encinal and the Catholic San Carlos Cemetery. I've never been able to figure the dividing line.
Friends recently told Nancy and me that Xavier Martinez, a very fine early Mexican-California artist who was born in Guadalajara in 1869, was buried in San Carlos, and we went looking for his tombstone.
I had written about Martinez years ago for the Monterey County Herald. Martinez had arrived in San Francisco in 1890 and became an important part of the Bohemian scene.
So gifted that almost no style of painting was out of his reach, he was also a dashing, handsome figure and charmed people from San Francisco to England and Paris. There is a photograph of him doing an oil sketch of Jack London, sitting several few feet away in a sunlit glade, and they both radiate health and creativity. If the portrait of London still exists, I know not where it is. The photograph is in the City of Peidmont (California) Historical Photo Archive.
My feeling about Martinez was that he was almost too talented. I find myself likening him to F. Scott Fitzgerald – either could do just about anything in his chosen art, and maybe it was too easy and both lost direction. When you can do pretty much what you want, maybe it becomes more difficult to decide what it is you really want.
One story of Martinez has him copying a portrait by Velasquez at the Louvre when James Whistler looks over his shoulder and says, ``You have a great talent, young one.'' Martinez heard this kind of thing often, as the gifted usually do.
But nothing is guaranteed, and Martinez lost many of his paintings when his San Francisco studio was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. More would be lost in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, nearly half a century after his death.
One of the paintings lost in 1991 was ``Women at the Well,'' a painting of the people of Mexico, perhaps the kind of painting Martinez should have always been doing; it has great feeling. But Martinez got away from that theme and may have envied the younger and upcoming Diego Rivera, who worked it so well.
The paucity of Martinez' work has hurt his legacy, although he was very well known during his lifetime – the California Legislature adjourned in his honor when he died on January 13, 1943, the first time an artist had been so honored in California.
Martinez was part Indian, and though he came from a prominent Mexican family, probably suffered some discrimination as a youth. It was said that he lost his dash and laughter later in life and became inward and quiet – one writer of the time said this was the sad Mexican Indian, remembering the past, in him.
There is another story that when Martinez died his body was tended by an unscrupulous Monterey mortician who was known to toss people's inards into a nearby gulch to be devoured by animals, that this happened to Martinez, and several armed citizens visited the mortician and, at gunpoint, made him do the right thing.
Nancy and I had trouble finding Martinez' grave in San Carlos Cemetery when we came across a graveyard worker, bearded, his pants knees grass stained, holding, yes, a shovel.
``Xavier Martinez? Yes, I know where he is. I'll take you there. A very nice couple comes here often and leave flowers at his grave. He receives a lot of visits, Martinez does.''
Over Martinez' grave the graveyard worker talked about the people who visit the cemetery, philosophized about life and death, and discussed the problems of encroaching weeds and healthy grass, all the while leaning on the handle of his shovel. It seemed, like Hamlet's gravediggers, the job encourages philosophizing and thinking aloud.
When we left Nancy and I decided Martinez had probably enjoyed the conversation, maybe was amused by it. I know I was itching to mutter, to paraphrase badly, ``Alas, poor Yorick, I wish I knew him better.''
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...