It may sound odd, but I enjoy visiting cemeteries.
A couple of years ago, MySendoff.com spearheaded the first observance of “Visit a Cemetery Day,” and while I don’t recall now how I first heard of it, I thought it was an interesting idea. This month, as the third annual observance of the day approaches, I’ve been thinking about, well, cemeteries.
More specifically, gravestones. Because while I’ve always enjoyed the peaceful quiet of cemeteries, it’s the stories told on their headstones that interest me.
Hanged in 1865, buried in 1994…no sign here of the part this Civil War veteran played in the Lincoln assassination.
Or the ones not told. A few months ago I was in the small town of Geneva, FL, visiting the grave of Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Lewis Powell, and found myself a bit surprised that his headstone made no mention of his involvement in that event. Of course, a casual observer would also not know that only his skull rests there…the whereabouts of the rest of his remains, which were (perhaps not surprisingly) unclaimed by his family after his public execution, remain a mystery. All that is immediately apparent are the span of his life and his service in the Confederate army.
That same day, just before visiting Lewis, I’d sat at the graves of civil rights activist Harry Tyson Moore and his wife, Harriette, thinking about the violence of their deaths, of which there is no trace in that silent earth. The same passerby who stopped to take a look without knowing their story would not realize their untimely end came at the hands of a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan…or, possibly, that they were in the “colored” cemetery: the dust of the sleepers here had not been seen fit to mingle with that of whites. (One wonders how the people who saw fit to create a “colored” cemetery imagined the different races would get along in heaven.)
I like reading headstones for the stories they tell, even if I never knew the deceased. The graves of infants and children are the most poignant.
Gravestone of Matthew Stanford Robison, Salt Lake City Cemetery, UT.
But it was during a visit to Savannah’s famed Bonaventure Cemetery that I really noticed the contrast between how we typically memorialized the dead, then and now.
The reports of Bonaventure’s loveliness were not exaggerated, and my afternoon stop there was a moving as well as deeply peaceful experience in spite of a slight drizzle under gray skies. I’d come not only to view history, but the grave of Danny Hansford, whose murder was made famous in John Berendt’s bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” With the grounds largely to myself, I walked up and down the sandy pathways, gravitating to what must have been fabulously expensive memorials in their day. Two in particular stood out: “Little Gracie” and marathoner Julia Backus Smith, “Savannah’s Fastest Female Runner.”
Julia Backus Smith. This statue was commissioned by her mother.
The life-size statue of a woman in jogging attire, posed as if in mid-stride with a flower in one hand, looks toward the road ahead of her with an open, welcoming smile that contrasts shockingly with her untimely death by suicide at age 57, two years after competing in her last marathon. A city commissioner and activist as well as dedicated runner, the stone at her feet memorializes her as “Humble, brave, beautiful, determined” and “her family’s rock.”
“Little Gracie” Watson, who died of pneumonia at the age of six in 1889, was the only child of the man who managed Pulaski House, one of Savannah’s leading hotels, and, according to her gravestone, a favorite with guests. Her life-size statue, carved from a photograph in 1890 by rising sculptor John Walz, depicts a child in demure dress with hair cascading loosely over her shoulders, small feet delicately crossed in high-buttoned shoes. As if to indicate that she felt cheated by leaving the world so young, Gracie’s spirit has been said to haunt the area of her death, and her gravesite, ever since her passing.
Tomb of Gracie Watson.
Other memorials proved slightly puzzling…for example, the undated stone erected to two women. A solemn angel stands guard above the inscription to primary spouse Barborn, “wife of F.D. Rückert,” which is followed by “Also Lovila, His Second Wife.” Did the unlucky widower have funds enough for only one marker?
Then there was the gold-tinted grand piano headstone of a gentleman named Upchurch. The slab below it makes no mention of his having been a musician…did he simply adore piano music?
I wandered past more angels and pensively posed female figures in flowing costumes before taking a short drive to the adjacent Greenwich Cemetery, which posed such a striking contrast to Bonaventure that for a moment I thought, “What happened?!” Here lay row upon row of flat, uniform stones such as one typically sees in modern cemeteries…and while it’s where the dead are remembered more than where they rest that matters, I couldn’t help feeling a little chagrined.
Fast forwarding two and a half years to my discovery that “Visit a Cemetery Day” was approaching, I took my curiosity as to why grave markers have so radically altered over the years to “MySendoff.com,” where Monika Berens kindly took time to reply. While she admitted that she had never considered the question, her take on the situation made perfect sense:
“The older cemeteries – pre-1900s – used mostly soft rock like limestone, shale, brownstone, etc. for headstones. Headstones made from this rock were easy to engrave and more elaborate designs could be used. Hard rock like granite began to replace the limestone because engraved inscriptions, designs, etc. would last longer (lots of the old limestone headstones are unreadable today). Granite was a lot harder to cut into shapes or carve into statues and would have been more expensive and most people would have kept the shape simple and the text short to avoid the higher costs.” She added that today there are only about a dozen tombstone craftsmen left in the U.S. – which to me seemed rather sad. Furthermore, Monika noted, nowadays most North American cemeteries are governed by boards that dictate a headstone’s appearance.
Part of this gravestone’s inscription reads “Her children rose up and called her blessed.”
“The changes in our cemeteries/headstones really parallel the changes in the communities in which we choose to live,” she went on to say. “Builders/developers build entire neighborhoods where every house is the same. Lots of these communities have boards similar to a cemetery’s that dictate how everything should look right down to the color of paint used on a door to the type of tree planted in the front yard. So maybe it’s just a trend?”
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How about you? Do you like to read old tombstones? Do you find graveyards peaceful, or morbid? Will you be stopping by one on October 27 in honor of the third annual “Visit a Cemetery Day”? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Next week I’ll be sharing an interview with Teresa Shields Parker, author of a new memoir, Sweet Grace: How I Lost 250 Pounds and Stopped Trying to Earn God’s Favor, a candid look at one woman’s journey to physical, emotional and spiritual health after years of morbid obesity. This book should be on the shelf of anyone who struggles with food addiction and weight…and I’ll tell you how to get a copy. See you then!
Two wives, one monument…
Headstone of Danny Hansford (Greenwich Cemetery, Savannah, GA), characteristic of modern markers but still personalized by visitors.