Remembering someone so beloved is the best way to honor them. [Editor’s note: That’s what the cemetery staff at Mount Auburn Cemetery, not exactly a place known for its wacky rituals, but also a wonderful time to go, was celebrating. One staffer was holding a sign that read, “Dear Ann Marie, Happy Birthday!”]
It was July 9, exactly 10 years ago that Ann Marie Tompkins died at age 94. Her family flew down from Washington, D.C., for her funeral in Philly. There were family and friends, and then there were 500 or so fans, mostly kids, at Mount Auburn, a South Philadelphia cemetery that has transformed into a carnival of unusual Japanese-themed jewelry, scrimshaw and statues.
Fans of Japanese art are common in Philadelphia; Philadelphia Art Museum is just one of several places to view incredible Japanese art. But even after her death, Tompkins, who turned her farmhouse on 82nd Street in North Philadelphia into a museum and playland, was celebrated not just for her work, but for her “wicked sense of humor,” and her unfailing happiness, no matter what the circumstances.
Years ago, Mount Auburn cemetery began to repopulate after the city abandoned it. It’s doing a number of things there now, including teaching children about cultural traditions that are forgotten in American culture. Some of the relics are artfully placed, but some are just ordinary wood furniture. And in a group of tombs, willows that once fed wildlife, they came across various pieces of jewelry and ribbons that Ann Marie Tompkins wore.
I was invited to visit her burial area. There are three kinds of tombs here. There’s a general plot, which has a bronze grave marker, and there are beautiful granite burial mounds with columns, which you can choose to visit or not visit (there is a cost). There are statuary areas on which sculptures can be placed, but then there are larger pedestals, where a line of jewelry is placed, much like jewelry is hung on the walls of a home.
My visit was very disorienting. The popular crowd was forming, and the statues were stacked up, showing off gems and jewelry along with certificates. The family was here. Those of us who were not family members had to go over to another area of the tomb to visit with Ann Marie’s sisters. They were cleaning their mother’s grave. They were dressed appropriately; there was a lovely hat, a colorful scarf and a red dress, looking elegant in the gray lighting of Mount Auburn Cemetery’s very small entrance hall. They made me feel truly welcome and welcomed that they didn’t have to dress fancy, that they didn’t have to give the impression that this was their final resting place.
The family shared anecdotes and pictures of their mother. They talked about working at Eastman Kodak, about doing readings for Ann Marie in her dream, about how it was good to have someone in your life who knew how to work in Washington, D.C. They made us feel what Ann Marie must have felt when she realized she was in heaven; she was somebody who knew how to go into the world.
Nancy Tompkins was a woman’s woman. She may have been one of the nicest people you could ever meet. The family said she was always smiling, laughing and happy. She loved her life and her family. Some of her jewelry — you know, the love beads and the rosary beads and the butterfly pins — are here. She received a number of them from people who loved her. The family donated them to the cemetery. I did not get a look at the jewelry, but you can certainly imagine. One of them might have been her prized three-way diamond ring. We found a letter Ann Marie wrote to somebody about a bad day in the hospital. It’s a handwritten poem that reads in part:
When you walk out of your blue door you go through many obstacles,
Things you cannot control can be bad and sometimes you just have to smile
You can get hurt and it hurts. When it hurts try to find the wisest way to think,
And what to say, if anyone asks, is good and wise. When it hurts, keep the faith,
And there is a way.
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