Founder of Dead Poets Society of America gets his tombstone carved and ready
The founder of the Dead Poets Society of America is preparing for the day he’ll become a dead poet himself — by getting a tombstone. Walter Skold is drawing inspiration from his visits to the graves of more than 600 bards for his own tombstone to be carved by the son of novelist John Updike.
The design created in collaboration with Michael Updike in Newbury, Massachusetts, represents a poignant and humorous mishmash inspired by the graves of poets including John Keats, Herman Melville, Elizabeth Frost and Frances Osgood. “At 57, I have outlived lots of poets, so now is a good time to have my tombstone carved,” Skold said. One day, he said, it will be placed on his final resting place at his family’s plot in York, Pennsylvania. He hopes it’s not anytime soon.
Skold, who is moving from Freeport, Maine, to Pennsylvania, has documented the final resting places of hundreds of American poets since he launched the Dead Poets Society in 2008. The society’s name was inspired by the 1989 Robin Williams movie about a teacher who inspires students to love poetry. His graveyard visits and poetry readings have bordered on the macabre, but he said his goal all along was to draw attention to dead and largely forgotten bards.
Along the way, he has produced the largest single repository of information on poets’ final resting places, along with an online equivalent of Poet’s Corner that honours poets and writers at England’s Westminster Abbey, said Deidre Shauna Lynch, an English professor from Harvard University. Updike, a sculptor and stone carver, was commissioned to create a tombstone that’s both contemplative and irreverent. Topped with a dancing skeleton and a quill, it will merge traditional and modern styles, Latin and Hebrew letters, Greek Muses and a biblical quote from St. Paul.
A late addition to the design is Skold’s beloved “Poemobile,” a van that carried him on his adventures before being destroyed in a rollover crash. The front of the tombstone will feature an image of a healthy Poemobile, while the back shows the overturned vehicle. “It’s a fun project. And there’s a lot of inside jokes in there. So yeah, we’ll see how it goes,” said Updike, who created the tombstone for his late father’s memorial in Plowville, Pennsylvania. Skold’s goal was to visit 500 gravesites. He far surpassed that by visiting 627 gravesites, and he has identified more than 100 additional poet graves. But those will have to wait.
Right now, he’s settling down to focus on his research and a book of original poetry once he’s in his new home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where he’ll be closer to his family. As for the tombstone, it will be carved on a piece of slate rescued from a pool table. Skold said it’s appropriate that it’s being carved in New England, where many tombstones are carved from slate. He hopes there’s an appreciation for some of the dark humour. For example, the bottom of the tombstone that’ll be covered with dirt will carry these words: “This here rock’s a talking stone just like Walt, who’s turned to bone.”
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