Saturday, December 6, 2008

Something I'd never seen before

Over the past few years I've been noticing the tendency in cemeteries for grave sites to become much more personalized and rather pagan compared to what had been the American norm: a relatively simple grave marker and flowers, either real or plastic. Headstones are becoming more idiosyncratic, the portrait medallion and epitaphs have made a comeback, and carvings on the stones increasingly reflect the deceased's life rather than being abstract symbolism.

The various offerings and memorabilia being heaped on graves these days can be rather baffling. Some items left make perfect sense from a pagan perspective: stuffed toys for a dead child, for example, or the ubiquitous "guardian" angels in various types and sizes. This mailbox for sending notes to the deceased is, however, a first. What's a person supposed to write? "Hope it's not too hot where you are?"

It was also rather intriguing that this grave was the only one in the cemetery (Oak Grove in Nacogdoches, Texas) that had any visible grave goods at all. One or two had flowers, but nothing else. The cemetery is old, with interments dating back to the 1830s, so it is possible the reason for the lack of flowers and other embellishments in most of the cemetery is there are no other recent interments. The Clarks are one of the oldest families in Nacogdoches -- William S. Clark signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and settled in the Sabine River basin in 1829 -- and maybe it was just luck that there was space in the corner of the family plot for Leon and Edna.
This angel, incidentally, is the William S. Clark marker that stands in the center of the family plot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Saddest Place

Posted elsewhere previously, but reposted here on the ninetieth anniversary of the end of the Great War.

The battle of Verdun was among the most horrifying of all the many terrible battles of the First World War. This happened by design: the German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, had concluded that the only way to win the war was to "bleed France white." He had more soldaten than the French had poilus, so if the armies settled down to serious tit-for-tat killing, the last man standing would be wearing feldgrau.

Falkenhayn chose the stage for his devilish scheme well. The ancient city of Verdun held great importance to French national honor: a mere thirty miles from the German border, the site had been a citadel since Roman times. In 878, Charlemagne's sons met here to sign a treaty that would divide his empire into the lands that would eventually become France and Germany. To lose the historic city was unthinkable to the French, Falkenhayn knew; they would indeed defend Verdun to the last drop of their blood.

There is a cemetery at a place called Douaumont where a small fraction of the men killed in this battle are buried. Just a small fraction… maybe only a hundred thousand or so. It is a tremendously impressive place- row upon row upon row of crosses marking the graves of the victims.

The day I visited Douaumont was foggy, and the fog was so dense that one could not see to the far side of the cemetery. The result was that it seemed as if the rows of crosses continued into infinity. It was eerie.

As this bleak mood settled over me, I turned and noticed a large memorial at one corner of the cemetery. It was shaped in the form of Biblical tablets, and it was covered with Hebrew letters. I realized what it was- a memorial to the soldiers who could not be buried under crosses- a memorial to the Jewish soldiers who died for France.

And then I was overwhelmed with grief and came as close to tears as I did on that trip. I thought of those young men who fought and died, never knowing that in 30 years their widows and perhaps their children would be herded into boxcars and exterminated like vermin. The futility of the sacrifice of these Jewish soldiers was too much to contemplate. It made me clearly understand the greatest tragedy of World War One that after so many men had given their lives, it was not enough.

The politicians would let it all happen again, and the sons of these dead soldiers would be at war once more.

"Died For France: 1914-1918"

Friday, November 7, 2008

Grave goods and the holidays

I can understand grave goods when it's the angels and fake flowers, but a tchotke saying "wishing you peace and happiness this holiday season"? That's a little strange.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Silver Hill Cemetery, Arkansas

The Younger Daughter and I had a conversation earlier today about job opportunties at Buffalo National River. There's an opening at the park posted on USAJobs with the duty station described as "Silver Hill/St. Joe," so I gave her a real pep talk about applying for the job even though she's weak in one of the four KSAs listed. I've been to Silver Hill, and Buffalo is one of my favorite parks. . . so I told her to apply so I could live vicariously through her. And, to clinch the argument, I told her I'd put up photos from the Silver Hill Cemetery. The cemetery is located right outside the park off U.S. 65.

Silver Hill is a fairly typical rural Arkansas cemetery. It's been in use for over 100 years, has an interesting mix of vernacular and commercial grave markers, and is still an active cemetery. There are a few table graves, some cast concrete head and footstones, and, of course, a Woodsmen of the World or two.

The older part of the cemetery has quite a few graves marked with uninscribed fieldstones, another typical feature of southern graveyards, especially rural ones. The table graves are also uninscribed.

I am intrigued by the gate -- the ironwork supporting it is very nice, but there's no fence on either side of it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

One Of My Neighbors

Nothing like living across the street from the city boneyard for one who enjoys exploring cemeteries. It's a great place to walk the dog on an autumn afternoon, with a spectacular view of Chequamegon Bay, and plenty of stimulus for thought.

Among my more interesting neighbors is a man who died too young:

Poor guy; probably thought he lucked out when the Army sent him to Alaska instead of France. The newspapers I've checked say nothing about the death of this local soldier, but I think it's a safe guess he was a victim of the great flu epidemic.

Fort Liscum, it turns out, stood on the site of modern Valdez, and closed in 1923. The University of Alaska has some great photos of the fort available online.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Jewish Cemetery- Hurley, Wisconsin

Thanks for the invitation to post here, Nan. For my maiden contribution, I'll offer a site that you will surely know more about than I ever will.

Coming from New York, the ultimate melting pot, the demography of Upper Cheeseland seemed pretty bland when I moved here 16 years ago. It wasn't until I settled in and started looking more closely that I began to notice the ethnic diversity that I'd initially missed: the Poles in Washburn, Bohemians in Moquah, Italians in Hurley, and the rest.

Not surprising, then, that this Jewish cemetery in Hurley caught my eye pretty quickly, though it was only recently that I finally got around to stopping. (One of these days I need to go back when the light is better.) I'm always especially fascinated when I encounter Jews in out-of-the-way places: though the mining country along Lake Superior may be a long way from Cornwall or the Piedmont, it seems farther yet from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. What was life like for a Jew in this land?

(Click the images for a closer view.)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Very personal memorials

The Washington Post has interesting feature article today on tatoos as memorials. It's been common for generations for some people to do a tatoo with a loved one's name and perhaps significant dates (birth, death, marriage), but body art has moved on to doing actual portraits.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Congressional Cemetery, Washington, DC

Photo is are from November 2004. The Congressional Cemetery is located in southeast Washington, DC, and, of course, contains a fair number of notables. J. Edgar Hoover is planted right up the road from this fellow.

Like many older cemeteries, the Congressional Cemetery has a number of maintenance issues, including family mausoleums that are suffering sadly from neglect.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Gentleman Jim" Reeves Memorial

This memorial to Gentleman Jim Reeves, a country music star, is located on US 79 near Panola, Texas, and not far from the Louisiana line. It's a nice memorial, although the pedestal strikes me as a little odd. It seems to bear a strong resemblance to an electric razor.

The two songs I always associate with Jim Reeves are "Four Walls" and "He'll Have to Go."

The photos were taken in early March 2008.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How Many of You Expect to Die?

The New York Times has an interesting article and discussion on this topic today. I'm guessing that all of us know we will, but none of us expect to.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Final destination

In response to the question I'm occasionally asked as to what I want done when time comes:

1. Cremation, as quickly as possible following death. The ideal is straight from the deathbed to the crematorium with no meddling by a funeral director in-between. No embalming, nothing, just a shroud (an old sheet would work just fine) and a cardboard tray for sliding the remains into the oven. Under Michigan law embalming is only required if there's going to be more than 48 hours from time of death to disposal of body. (Laws vary from state to state, but usually if it's straight to the crematorium there's absolutely no rationale or legal reason for embalming to take place.)

2. No urn for the ashes -- a cardboard carton will do just fine because it's not going to be used very long.

3. No holes dug in cemeteries -- I want to be scattered on the hillside above the orchard at the farm in Herman. Or in the orchard. Use your own judgement on how far up the hill you feel like walking. (Note: be sure to let the crematorium know the plan is to scatter -- they'll blend the cremains finer when they know that's the plan instead of a columbarium or someone's mantel.)

4. If this seems too minimalist, I'm okay with a cenotaph at the Herman Cemetery. There is a way to get one at basically no cost (see instructions for the S.O. below)

5. And if it feels like there should be some ritual involved, track down someone pagan or Wiccan to do it. No bible thumpers.

As for the S.O., similar instructions, and ditto on the cenotaph. The S.O. and I both qualify for a military headstone. Go with the traditional upright marble tablet-style and set them up in either the Mannikko or Farm family lots. I'll try to remember to fill the application forms out in advance and will keep them stashed with the other necessary paperwork, like the copies of the DD214s that prove we're veterans. Both family lots have plenty of room for a cenotaph or two when there's not going to be anything else (like a full-size casket) going with it.

The upright headstones do allow for a brief epitaph, and I may or may not have one composed in advance. I may joke about using "all we are is dust in the wind" but I'm not such a huge Kansas fan that I actually want to be linked to that lyric into perpetuity. (Then again, it is a nice counterpoint to all the "gone home" religious inanities.)

If survivors really insist on spending money, I've always been fond of memorial benches in cemeteries. Not cheap, though, and maybe not a good idea in a part of the country known for heavy snow fall.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Who are these people?

I wish I knew. I found these photos in a stack of loose photos that have been sitting in an envelope for years. I think they both came from photos that belonged to an aunt, but neither one is labelled. They each have a rubber stamp on the back from a film processing company (Arrow Photo Services) located in Minneapolis, but no names for the decedents or hints exactly where the pictures may have been taken.Is this girl a relative? I don't know. What did she die from? When the photo is enlarged her face looks swollen, so either diphtheria or mumps is a strong possibility. The flag-draped casket below does contain one clue -- the phrase "Died Feb 5, 1939" is written on the back of the photograph. The flag suggests the man was a veteran, but again, who knows? None of the older relatives I've shown the photos to recognize either person; the people who would have known are probably now long dead themselves.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mother Jones

Had a conversation the other day with a "conservative" acquaintance about unions and how (in his opinion) unnecessary they are. Got me to thinking about Mother Jones and other activists. People need to learn some history. Maybe if they had some grasp of just how many people died so they could have an 8-hour work day, 5 day work week instead of a 14-hour, 7 day week they'd do a little less cheerleading for unfettered capitalism.
Photos are from the Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, of course.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Going in style

Blatz family mausoleum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The photo is from a rainy day in June 2006 using a cheap camera with actual film, hence the distressing fuzzines when the photo is viewed larger. Architectural details do include Victorian favorites as the upside-down torch to symbolize life extinguished.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A moving memorial

Spotted this vehicle at a BP gas station in Meridian, Mississippi, on May 24, 2008. The car had Texas plates.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cast metal grave markers

Spotted some cast metal markers in the cemetery in Houghton, Michigan, last week. Two were definitely zinc (aka "white bronze"), but the third, which is about 30 years older than the two zinc markers, is much heavier metal. No visible rust, but I think it's iron.

The Houghton cemetery is an interesting one. It's right on the edge of the Michigan Tech campus -- students cut through there constantly, shortcutting from Daniel Heights (aka married students housing) to the Student Development Complex, which houses the Athletic Department (PE classes and sports events) and health clinic. I can remember walking through myself on the way to PE classes in the 1980s and pausing to read headstones dating back to the 1840s. Several professors at Tech use the cemetery as a resource for teaching human ecology, sociology, and history. The cemetery is quite well maintained and is still active. I don't know about the National Register status of the entire cemetery, but it does contain at least one family mausoleum that's listed. There's Michigan SHPO plaque next to the door noting that the structure is historically significant.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cedar Hill Cemetery

Found this intriguing example of a vernacular concrete marker in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Scottsboro, Alabama, on Saturday. The Cedar Hill Cemetery is located directly behind the Unclaimed Luggage Center so both it and the marker were purely serendipitous -- wasn't looking for either, but spotted the entrance sign to the cemetery when we pulled into the parking lot for the Unclaimed Luggage store. I wasn't really sure if it was concrete or not until I got a good look at the top and could see the overlap between the front and back sides. The duplication of two motifs often in late 19th, early 20th century markers -- the clasped hands and the open book -- had me initially wondering if it was actually a commercial limestone marker. There are times when it can be hard to tell the difference between a vernacular limestone and a vernacular concrete. A close examination, though, revealed the maker of the stone sculpted it from concrete. Definitely a more ambitious effort than the typical simple tablets or slabs one usually finds when cement is the chosen medium.
Cedar Hill Cemetery is a large community cemetery with sections dating back to the 19th century. It is an active cemetery, and includes a number of nice examples of contemporary markers with the personalizations that are once again becoming fairly commonplace, e.g., portraits of the deceased.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Rhetorical question

Ever wonder why Non Sequitur seems to include cemetery humor on a fairly regular basis? Didn't think so, but here's the latest:

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Getting personal

Two words you don't want to read in a radiologist's report: aortic ectasia. I feel the need creeping up to write a long, intensely personal piece on death and dying, but not today.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Intriguing marker

I found this in a Springfield, Illinois, cemetery. It's not far from Abraham Lincoln's tomb.
At first blush, it's a pretty ordinary 1920's commercial marker, although it does appear that Mr. Ervin was a joiner -- I count three different organizations' symbols, with the last one being the one and only example of its type I've ever stumbled across:

Monday, March 31, 2008

Tornado damage at Oakland Cemetery

The Georgia State Historic Preservation Office has descriptions with accompanying photos of tornado damage to National Register listed properties in Atlanta, including the Oakland Cemetery.

The local ABC affiliate keeps promising to air a program about Oakland Cemetery, it's been listed in the tv guide several weeks in a row now, but each time I think it's going to be on the station shows something else instead. The latest disappointment came Friday night when they decided to run Gray's Anatomy instead. I'm thinking that maybe they're still doing editing and updates to the program because it was originally slotted to air right about the same time the tornado hit.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ferndale, California

I bought a slide scanner a few days ago and decided to pratice with a box of slides labeled "Ferndale 1983." Ferndale is (or was) a lovely little town south of Eureka with wonderful Victorian buildings as well as this cemetery. Various television and movie productions have filmed in Ferndale because it looks so much like a New England coastal village, including the original television mini-series version of Stephen King's vampire classic, "Salem's Lot."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Vernacular concrete markers

I've mentioned this is a special interest so thought I'd put up a few examples. Both are from the Buffalo River area in northern Arkansas. The first one is from the Canaan Cemetery near Marshall. It was designed to hold a photo.
Unfortunately, as is true of almost all grave markers that incorporated a frame meant to hold anything printed on paper, the photograph has suffered so much water damage that it's now almost completely obliterated.

The second marker is from the Silver Hill Cemetery located just outside the boundary for Buffalo National River off US-65. It, too, was designed to hold a photo or plaque, which was either never mounted in place or has since been removed.

The Canaan Cemetery is also notable for its amazing two-tier table graves. Unlike the table graves common farther south in Louisiana, these are strictly false vaults. Actual interments were in-ground, not above.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Valentine, Nebraska

It's snowing in Atlanta today, and for some reason that got me to thinking about the last time I saw real snow -- Valentine, Nebraska, in January 2007. The cemetery there had the first grave markers I'd ever noticed that included brands.

Quite a few markers also included a typical Sand Hills ranch scene, too, like this one:

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Greta Christina has another good post on death and dying. (And one of these days I need to learn how to do hypertext links instead of just copying the URLs)


Back in high school or shortly after I read a book called A Fine and Private Place written by Peter Beagle, an author best known for another work of fantasy, The Last Unicorn. If you've never read the book but appreciate good fantasy, seek it out. It's set in a cemetery. Whether or not the book alone is responsible for my interest in gravestones, memorials, and rituals surrounding death and dying is unlikely, but it no doubt contributed to it. I plan to use this blog as a space for random thoughts related to funerary art, roadside memorials, grave goods, and whatever else catches my attention that's connected in some way to the ways Americans deal with death.
I plan to set up an occasional slide show from favorite cemeteries, speculate on the increasing paganism I see evidenced in the proliferation of roadside memorials and the truly bizarre (and almost always sad) offerings of grave goods, and to highlight interesting historical and curiousities. I have a strong interest in vernacular grave markers -- concrete, fieldstone, wood, and found materials -- so will probably do a lot of thinking out loud about them, too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

St. Augustine Cemetery, Cane River Creole National Heritage Area, Louisiana. Photo taken December 24, 2007.