Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan. The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books. When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand. Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery. There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead. It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard. We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.
When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods. The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new. Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground. H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about. Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer. After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.
I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead. Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded. Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top. Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses. The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed. One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not. There’s a simple elegance to it. Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison. We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited. When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.