Inscribing the Stone:
Notes from Worcester's Hope Cemetery
by Angela Dorenkamp
When I first visited Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts, to search out Elizabeth Bishop’s grave, snow covered the ground. At the cemetery office, I was given the exact location of the gravesite and learned that Bishop’s ashes had been buried on the reverse side of a monument bearing her parents’ names: William T. Bishop and Gertrude B. Bishop. On Beach Street, curving among hope Cemetery’s gently-sloping, snow-covered lawns, I found the gravestone – a substantial piece of rectangular-cut, beveled granite. Bishop’s parents’ names and dates were carved on the side fronting the road. Anxiously, I scurried to the far side to see whether the line from “The Bight,” – “Awful but cheerful” – which Bishop had reportedly requested for her epitaph, was actually there. To my surprise, the stone was altogether blank. Perhaps, I reasoned, someone had placed an inscribed stone flat to the ground on Elizabeth’s side, but I could not test this theory because the snow was too thick and hard. When spring came, there was no flat stone.
When Laura J. Menides (WPI) and I presented a program about Bishop at the Worcester Historical Museum integrating biography, poetry, and slides, we had a slide of the family plot in Hope Cemetery and mentioned the fact that the grave was not marked and that we wanted to try to get that done. The cemetery office told us we needed permission from Alice Muthfessel, executrix of the Bishop estate, in order to have Bishop’s name cut in the stone under which she is buried. Eventually we wrote to Ms. Methfessel, as did Elizabeth Ross Naudin, a first cousin of Bishop’s who lives in Florida, and
a few of the people who attended our presentations. Soon, Laura Menides, Carle Johnson (Worcester County Poetry Association), and I were busy planning The Elizabeth Bishop Conference & Poetry Festival, which will be held in Worcester Massachusetts, on October 9-12, 1997. We wanted to include a tour of places in Worcester related to Bishop’s life here, including her gravesite, of course. So I sent Ms. Methfessel a copy of the permission form required by the cemetery. When I spoke with her on the phone, she was gracious and anxious to have the matter resolved. In fact, she said, she had been under the impressions that the estate’s lawyers had taken care of the inscription some time ago. Once we had the permission – and the assurance that the estate would cover the cost of the engraving – I arranged for the work to be done. The lettering matched that of Bishop’s parents’ exactly. The letters, for instance, were hand-cut rather than sand blasted. The inscription, sent to us by Alice Methfessel, reads as follows:
On a beautiful fall day – Sunday, October 6, 1996 – which happened to be the 17th anniversary of Elizabeth Bishop’s death, Laura Menides, Carle Johnson, and I made a pilgrimage to her grave. There we noted the newly cut inscription and read “The Bight” aloud. Bouyed by the nip in the air, we felt the lightness of euphoria. Thanks are due to Alice Methfessel; to Laura Menides and Carle Johnson; to Aldo Gatti, the stonecutter; to the cemetery staff; to Elizabeth Ross Naudin; to all those who supported and helped bring to closure, this small, but important. enterprise.
Previously published in The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin, Volume 5, Number 2, Winter 1996; and The Worcester Review, Volume XVIII, Numbers 1 & 2, 1997.