Open Court

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy

There’s a dark green bench near the tombstone, one of the old ones with the wooden slats and iron legs, like the ones city governments placed at bus stops.  It’s as if he’s inviting you stay for a while.  Sit, relax and let us converse. 

His name is on the back of the bench, along with his birth date and his death date.  Of course that got me to thinking that maybe the bench isn’t for sitting and relaxing.  Maybe it’s part of the tombstone, kind of a double display effect:  the actual stone tombstone and the bench forming two sides, like bookends for the dead.

The actual tombstone has his name and dates too.  Two feet wide by eight inches high, it’s a three-layered affair, like a cake, but each layer is smaller than the one beneath it.  The bottom layer is just cement, with the next two higher layers being black granite, which, as usual, isn’t really black.  More of a dark gray.

Other family members lie next to it.  Their tombstones are flush-mounted cement slabs, adorned with their names and dates.  Flush-mounting makes it easier for the mowing machines.  Including his stone, there are seven:  his wife, Marie, and six children.  The last of the children was buried not long ago at all.

Kentucky bluegrass functions as a carpet, and trees stand in cliquish clumps, mostly pine trees.  Dry brown maple leaves crunch underfoot, loitering around his chimney tombstone, having been pushed into drifts by the wheezing breezes of old man winter.

The air in the cemetery, and the sky above, is potter's field gray – that hazy shade that disperses through graveyards.  It smells fusty and, having read once that all smells are particulate, I wonder if I’m inhaling particles of death, decomposing flesh.  Which makes my nose wrinkle and feel dry.

All together, it induces a melancholic somberness, reminding me – the sole visitor this day – of the truth of the old adage ‘dead and gone.’  Or ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  For it is certainly a dead place, full of only dead bodies.  All the souls – the ne shemahs – have long gone.  Like Bram Stoker said, “The dead do travel fast.”  They’ve all gone somewhere else, leaving only their bones here.

As I stand before his grave I wonder where his soul went.  To heaven?  To hell?  To the intermediary called purgatory?  Or perhaps to some other place, like Abraham’s Bosom of the Old Testament, although probably not as he wasn’t Jewish.  He was German and referred to himself as “an atheist who loved God.”  Which, of course, is a severe specimen of oxymoron.

His name was Paul Carus.  And his bones lie under the black granite tombstone, which lies in Oakwood Cemetery, which lies in La Salle, Illinois.

Born in Ilsenburg, Germany, he was an intellectual product of Europe’s elite universities, having attended the University of Strassbourg in France, and the University of Tubingen in Germany, where he did his doctoral studies in philosophy.  Raised by protestant parents, he strayed from his faith because of incompatibility, i.e., he could not accept the assertion that ‘they,’ the protestants, were right and everyone else was wrong and, what’s more, damned

His liberal viewpoint also made him politically incompatible with Germany under Otto von Bismarck.  So in 1884 Carus moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he took a job as the editor of the Germanic journal, Die Todt, a newspaper version of Newsweek, although not as widely read, for hoity-toity Germans living in the United States.

His job as editor connected him with wealthy and influential men, one of who was the millionaire Edward C. Hegeler, who had a very pretty daughter named Marie.  Carus fell in love with Marie and married her.  His new father-in-law built the couple a mansion, aptly called the Hegeler Carus Mansion.  And he founded the Open Court Publishing Company, making Carus the managing editor.