Book review: In 'The Speaking Stone,' Sewanee-connected writer considers the contingent nature of existence

Contributed Photo from Chapter16.org / Michael Griffith

"THE SPEAKING STONE: STORIES CEMETERIES TELL" by Michael Griffith (University of Cincinnati Press, 325 pages, $30).

Michael Griffith humbly remarks that his books do not qualify him as a "World Historical Individual," yet in "The Speaking Stone: Stories Cemeteries Tell," he accomplishes a feat that none of the politicians, industrialists and artists he portrays could pull off: He brings the dead back to life.

The book's conceit appears modest - to record the lives of people interred in Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum - but its impact is profound. These essays track the subtle ways history intersects with individuals, and they remind us that pride and ambition lead inexorably to oblivion. Griffith simultaneously sharpens our sympathy for solitary lives and chastens us for harboring fantasies of immortality.

Gravestones themselves, Griffith observes, "represent an attempt - conscious or not, self-ironizing or not - to claim for ourselves a limited permanence."