Last weekend, in an attempt to escape from the concrete and chaos of NYC, Jeremy and I took a day trip to Rhinebeck, NY. There, hidden behind a quiet antebellum church, we discovered a zombie playground.
If New York City is a Big Apple, Rhinebeck is an underdeveloped peach. Its downtown consists of a single intersection, the spokes of which are studded with a cigar shop, ice cream parlor, antique market, and four surprisingly good restaurants. The buildings in Rhinebeck are all short enough to loose a Frisbee on top of.
It took only two hours for Jeremy and me to walk through each of the town's hot spots, eat lunch, and talk with two shop-owners. Our site-seeing complete, we made our way to the suburbs, a three block hike out of town.
In Finding Nemo, an ocean native named Gill observed that all drains lead to the ocean. On his Discovery Channel show (Man v/s Wild), Bear Grylls taught that all trails eventually lead to water. As a small town explorer, I would like to add that – depending on your feelings about organized religion – all sidewalks eventually lead either to or past a church.
Jeremy and I weren’t looking for a church, but that’s where the sidewalk led us.
The white, wooden church that sits three blocks from Rhinebeck’s only red light is probably older than most of the trees in Manhattan. The bell in its steeple has been Rhinebeck’s alarm clock since the days when men set their pocket watches to its hourly toll. Its long wooden pews are polished smooth from ten generations of weddings, Easter celebrations, and Sunday morning services. In its backyard grows a cemetery the congregation started planting in the late 1700’s.
Up from the seeds of the church's death and grief have sprouted several dozen antique tombstones. Each stone marker records dates of both joy and pain (Benjamin Cooper: born 1790 died 1843). Many have inscriptions to help mathematically challenged mourners (aged 53 years, 4 months, 8 days). Some even give a brief biography (drowned in the bloom of health) or a frightening last thought for loved ones who might attempt to move on (as I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me).
Excited by our morbid discovery, Jeremy and I walked through the people-garden and took pictures of the head stones. I wanted a shot framed with the church in the background and the graves in the foreground, a (probably too obvious) comment on the hope that religion – and especially Christianity – gives its dead.
That’s when I saw the playground. Nestled against the back corner of the church, surrounded by a short chain-link fence, stood a cedar play house, four swings, a sandbox, and a green plastic Playskool slide. It isn’t unusual to see a playground behind a church. It is, however, unusual to see a tombstone poking out of the sandbox. Most churches put their playgrounds on an out of the way corner of unused land. Very few build them on top of their cemetery.
A closer look at the playground confirmed that sticking its head out of the sandbox was a short, moss covered tombstone (In Memory of Mary). Two taller stones (Eliza Ann Williams 1779 – 1810 and Leah Bergh 1769 – 1843) stood immediately beside Mary’s in the sandbox, casting long shadows across a yellow Tonka truck. Two additional stone markers, whose inscriptions have been worn smooth, stood watch over the playhouse and swing set.
At some point in the church’s fairly recent past, a middle-aged man apparently stood in the back corner of the cemetery, looked at Mary’s eternal resting place, and thought “This. This is the perfect place for a kid to dig a hole.”
And then he built a sandbox.
From Mary’s perspective, being buried under a playground probably has significant advantages. Although her neighbors get to rest peacefully on a quiet hillside, they’ve all finished decomposing and have nothing left to do. They’re probably bored to death. Trees don’t really grow quickly enough to provide much entertainment.
Planted under the sandbox, however, Mary (debatably) has the best plot in the yard. Every day she gets to watch castle construction from the ground up. She gets to listen to giggling children play their games and tell their secrets. She even gets to feel the soft patter of little feet running through the dirt.
Unfortunately, she’s also forced to look up at the not-so-pretty end of neighborhood cats who use her sandbox as a toilet. Every time they make a deposit, I’m sure Mary wishes rolling over in her grave was really as easy as the living seem to think it is.
While Mary quietly wonders why Jesus is taking so long to come back, neighborhood children spend their days sitting on her grave, digging in the space between life and death. I hope they appreciate the incredible opportunity they’ve been given. After all…
How many kids get to dig for treasure and actually feel their shovel hit a buried wooden box?
How many kids get to schedule regular play dates with their great, great, great, great grandparents?
And how many kids know that on Sunday morning, when their Sunday School teacher asks the class if they know where they’ll go when they die, that they always have the best answer?
“Yes,” they can say with confidence. “I’ll go to the playground.”
To see pics of the playground, click the epitaphs in the story ("In Memory of Mary", "Eliza Ann Williams 1779 – 1810 and Leah Bergh 1769 – 1843", "Two additional stone markers"). You can also click here to see pics of the playground.