Nautilus

The Gravekeeper’s Paradox

On a hillside in the southeast corner of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge Massachusetts, a human’s entire life stands summed up in six lines:

The lines adorn the remains of a house-shaped slab of sandstone. Most of its inscribed face has sheared off, making the text illegible. This is a common problem with sedimentary rocks like sandstone. Because they form in layers, they tend to come apart in layers—an unfortunate fact for Edward. Or maybe it was Edna, or perhaps just Ed.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is a 175-acre plot of graves, trees, ponds, and winding roads that is known as America’s “first garden cemetery.” I’ve spent the past two days touring the cemetery with its Chief of Conservation, David Gallagher. Slender with a high voice, Gallagher lives alone above his workshop on the cemetery grounds in an apartment containing a marble statue he sculpted on a trip to the Swiss Alps. He enjoys reading biographies in its company, and seems happy spending his days patching thin cracks in the cemetery’s old stones using custom grouts applied with dentist’s tools. When the water evaporates slowly, there’s a better chance the sealant will hold, according to Gallagher. “This isn’t rocket science, but a lot of people do it wrong,” he tells me from behind a marble obelisk.

We’ve spent most of our time together driving around the cemetery’s shaded avenues in a red and black two-seated maintenance vehicle loaded with grouts, glues, shovels, shims, and whatever other weaponry the war on entropy requires. Occasionally we stop someplace and Gallagher mournfully explains the intricacies of the damage to a monument and

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