Death’s Garden: Jacksonville Cemetery

Broken bud

Broken bud photo by Loren Rhoads

by Stacey Graham

Jacksonville, Oregon was a dirty little rut. Miners swarmed the hills looking for gold hidden in creekbeds and left it destitute of honor, beauty, and respectability. Once gold was pulled from Rich Gulch in 1851, Jacksonville blossomed, while men drug mules through the mud streets and into the hills, leaving their families to struggle in the small Southern Oregon village.

Pioneers bringing hope for a new life eased into the Oregon Territory. As campsites gave way to houses and businesses forced the miners into behaving, Jacksonville broadened its shoulders and grew into one of the largest cities in Oregon in the last half of 19th century. Farmers tamed the surrounding land, changing the face of the ancestral home of the Upland Takelmas tribe as the Native Americans jostled for position amongst the newcomers—and fell behind.

The population stumbled in 1884 when the railway bypassed Jacksonville, now the county seat, for nearby Medford. With the railway went businesses and residents looking for a way out of this tiny Western town butting up against the hills. Jacksonville fell into a gentle decay until the 1960s, when town residents protested against having Interstate 5 dividing the town and sparked preservation efforts.

Jacksonville now has National Historic Landmark protection on over 100 of its buildings — plus the cemetery — due to their efforts.

The first burial on the land occurred in 1859, before the cemetery was officially opened. Local businessman John Love got permission to bury his mother in October. Plots were being advertised by December 1859 and the ground was dedicated in 1860. It has been filling ever since.

My story in Jacksonville started in 1982. Moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to a hamlet called Applegate, twelve miles from Jacksonville and along the river, I became involved in Jacksonville’s history by volunteering as a teenager to be a historical interpreter at the Beekman House, as well as working at the now defunct museums.

Summers in the Rogue Valley were often between 90-100º. Wearing layers of period clothing in a non-air conditioned mansion led me to take lunch breaks up in the hills surrounding Jacksonville. Winding into the trees where it was cooler, I’d drive into the cemetery overlooking the town and relax.

Often I’d have lunch with the Beekmans, but then branched out to visit other graves on the 41 acres. My favorite was Josephine, no last name listed. Her late 19th-century stone was small and crumbling. Evidently she had been forgotten, perhaps right after burial, as lives flowed through the town like gold dust—just a wink and it was gone. The dirt path cut over her gravesite. Her stone was half-buried in the shrubbery. Having a soft spot for the underdog, I pulled away the weeds and brought the stone back into the sunlight. Thirty years later, I still think about my first adopted gravesite.

While Josephine’s stone gave no clue to her demise and only a death year now lost to my bad memory, other stones shared the realities of the early pioneers: cholera, diphtheria, measles, smallpox, lead poisoning, and “Indian War” made the list of ways to hit the dirt early in Jacksonville.

While in college, years later, I took a class that focused on the community. I had a pick of subjects; it only needed to be something that once brought the community together, as well as charted the development of the Rogue Valley. What better microcosm than a cemetery?

Plotting the cemetery was easy. For the most part, it was well-maintained (aside from poor Josephine) and sectioned into seven segments including Jewish, Catholic, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, and the Independent and Improved Order of Red Men. A potter’s field on the north side of the cemetery held the remains of blacks, whites, Native Americans, Hawaiians, and possibly Chinese. Due to the nature of being a potter’s field, there are no gravestones beyond a more recent monument erected to honor the 133 bodies left behind.

As my research continued, the connection between the community was clear: everybody dies. Choosing to focus on the art of the stonework, I wove patterns from their shared stories. Hardship, bad luck, and disease were etched into the faces of the gravestones — but decorated by art, it became part of their narrative. A child taken by measles, a middle-aged man lost in war, or a woman buried next to her infant: represented by lambs, half-opened roses, even beehives and horses told tales that no date could share.

I later earned degrees in History and Archaeology/Anthropology to learn more about how we keep the circle going and how the past influences our choices. I’ve continued my work, quietly visiting cemeteries around the United States. Now I take my children as the next generation of gravestone custodians and art lovers. What better way to revisit Josephine and tell her that she’s not forgotten?


SGrahamMHStacey Graham is the author of four books and a ragtag collection of short stories. You may currently find her scaring the pants off of readers with her book Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls, and Other Creepy Collectibles. She intends on returning the pants at a later date. Please visit her website, at Twitter, and at Facebook to share your ghost story.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.)  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Most Beautiful Cemetery Book in my Collection

Pere LachaisePere Lachaise by Mark Ballogg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I own many, many cemetery books. This is the most beautiful of all of them.

Mark Ballogg’s photography is a revelation. The range of tones and the precision of focus in his pictures is breathtaking, vertigo-inducing, and gives you a sense that his camera sees so much more incisively than you ever could, even if you were standing right there beside it. These are photos to be studied, to be treasured.

The book opens with a dirty, broken styrofoam crucifix lying amidst some weeds beneath a bouquet of silk roses. I’ve never seen life and death captured so well in a photograph. The sense of time passing, of things dissolving, continues in the photo from Avenue Eugene Delacroix, where the faces of the family have melted away, leaving ghosts in stone behind.

Now and then Ballogg pulls back to give a larger view of the cemetery. Its tombs stand side by side like houses along a street, but there are no people here, no wildlife — not even a leaf on a tree, in some cases. Life has come and gone in some of these images, leaving only the photographer behind to capture what remains.

Avenue Eugene Delacroix photo by Mark Ballogg. I apologize for the quality of my scan.

Avenue Eugene Delacroix photo by Mark Ballogg. I apologize for the quality of my scan.

One of my favorite photos is taken through the cross cut into the heavy iron door of the Morel family tomb. Two stained marble faces stare out of the arms of the cross, while below, a cherub clasps its hands together. I really like the sense of the tomb’s denizens returning my curiosity.

Ballogg is an architectural photographer, so the details of the stonework often draw his eye. The most spectacular photograph is taken on the Avenue Circulaire. It captures the cemetery at its most exuberant: full of solid tombs, filigree metal doors, an obelisk, a truncated column, a muse laying a palm, and a bearded life-sized duelist with broken sword upraised. I don’t know how you could look at that photograph and not want to travel to Paris to see it in person.

If I am so blown away by the photography, why have I only given the book 4 stars? Unfortunately, the text does not measure up to quality of the images.

The introductory essay by Michael A. Weinstein is adequate, despite wallowing unnecessarily in academic artspeak. For instance, “It is only by looking into a photographic print made by a masterful modernist that one is able to experience it completely.” Well, duh. It’s a two-dimensional object. How else could you experience it? Still, I do like Weinstein’s analogy that a well-composed photograph is like a lyric poem, something to be savored and returned to.

Despite the quibbles I might have with the punctuation of its title, I expected “The Pere Lachaise Cemetery–A Nineteenth Century Idealization of Parisian Society” to be a history of the cemetery. Instead, it’s a kind of academic word salad where I couldn’t figure out how one sentence led to the next. I know enough about the history Pere Lachaise not to be thrown by weird flow of time through the essay, but your mileage may vary. A linear progression would have served the material much better.

Luckily, it is entirely unnecessary to read the text in order to draw the maximum amount of pleasure from this book. It’s slipcased, oversized, clothbound, with smooth matte pages that reproduce the photographs in a dense spectrum of grays. This cemetery book is a pinnacle of the subject and will be an ornament to your collection.

I asked Mark how you can get your own copy of the book.  Here’s his response:

“The book without a slipcover is $60, $75 with the slip cover, and a limited edition of 100 clamshell cases that include a 12×12” print in a portfolio and the book is available for $300.  There are 4 images to choose for the clamshell edition. This edition is stunning and quite a bargain. My prints start at $500.

“I can take orders for the book via cell call/text or email. I will send a Paypal invoice. Once I receive payment, I will ship the book. Alternatively, I will accept a payment in the form of a mailed check.”

Mark’s email is mark at balloggphoto dot com.

Full disclosure: This was the first project I helped fund on Kickstarter.  Mark suffered a heart attack soon after the Kickstarter ended, so the book was delayed for years, but I more than got my money’s worth.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Death’s Garden: Crossed Fingers

All photos of Pleasant Hill by Jo Nell Huff.

All photos of Pleasant Hill by Jo Nell Huff.

by Jo Nell Huff

“Cemetery! Cross your fingers!”

The admonition floats to the surface of my consciousness like the command of an angel as I see the cemetery ahead on the left. The child within me obediently crosses the middle finger over the index finger of both hands. I continue to drive my car along the freeway at 70 miles per hour.

When I traveled with my family as a child, the females in the car crossed their fingers while passing a cemetery. Father did not participate. Either an older sister or my mother would warn of an approaching cemetery and we would all cross our fingers. I confess that I still do it after these years, even though I know it is foolish. While driving alone, I can boldly cross them without fear of derision. When traveling with fellow passengers who do not know of this ritual, I usually casually fold one hand in my lap or drape one arm over the car seat as I cross my fingers. Today, since I’m alone, I can cross boldly.

Corneilious Cooper 1The purpose of this ceremony? It was one of many beliefs my mother acquired from her childhood in East Texas, where superstitions were as natural as going to the cellar to escape tornadoes whenever unusually dark and heavy clouds appeared with the slightest suspicion of wind. She was determined to pass this fertile legacy on to her daughters, even though we were born and reared in South Texas, where rain was always welcome, even if accompanied by tornado or hurricane, and where superstitions were not so abundant.

Was it to keep death away, since one was passing so close to it? Or was it bad luck not to cross your fingers when passing a cemetery, just as it was bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Mother never fully explained the origin or reason and we never questioned her command. I feared failure to cross my fingers might cause me to be struck dead on the spot or even damned to Hell forever. Something bad was sure to happen…maybe I would even cause the death of someone in the family. As I got older — somewhere around my teenage years — I simply did it out of habit and to placate my mother. Now it is a reminder to say a short prayer for the safety of my loved ones. Mother would surely have approved of my blend of Christianity and heathen superstition, if she was still alive.

Protocol applied to the procedure. For example: entering a place of interment for a burial service or to visit the grave of a loved one, friend, acquaintance, or any famous person did not require crossed fingers. If you lived close to a cemetery that you passed on a daily basis, you were exempt.

Rutha Cooper 1

Rutha Cooper’s headstone

It would be wrong to assume that my mother feared or shunned the resting places of the dead. For her, the cemetery was a place to visit and remember the past. When we went to East Texas to visit relatives, it always included visiting the cemetery.

Uncle Houston lived next to a cemetery, where he worked as the caretaker. He and Aunt Mable lived in a small house at the top of a red clay hill next to Pleasant Hill Cemetery. The house had electricity but no indoor plumbing. Water was drawn from a well in the backyard and heated on the gas stove in the kitchen. Leafy tobacco sometimes grew beside the well.

Straight from the well, the water was cool and sweet. A bucket with a dipper sat on the back porch next to the kitchen door, ready to quench one’s thirst or fill the washbasin for cleaning up before going into the house. The kitchen usually smelled faintly of sausage, eggs, and biscuits. The linoleum floors were perpetually dusted with a fine coating of red sandy dust, which Aunt Mable fought daily with her well-worn broom.

Putting on his oversized hat, loosely fitting khakis, and long-sleeved denim shirt, Uncle Houston would leave the house before it got hot and head off for his place of work with his trusty hoe. In the cemetery, he fought the plague of nut grass as if it were the devil himself transformed and risen from Hell. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the melodic clang! of the lightly swung hoe as it hit a small rock or coping — the cement closure around a family plot or a single grave — and echoed through the pines and sunshine.

By mid-morning I could find him deep within the domain of the silent and eternal sleepers. The golden sun would be out. Pleasant Hill Cemetery was a place not of decaying death, but of exploration and adventure. The setting was quiet except for the sound of an occasional car or truck passing on the two-lane highway that connected the small East Texas towns of Henderson, Kilgore, Troup, Arp, Laird Hill. The smell of pine needles and resin filled the summer day. Running through the huge cemetery, I would look for his straw hat and listen for the sound of his hoe. The newer tombstones were of less interest to me, so I always hoped he would be working in the older sections, around the ones with real character and history and visions of people who lived and died in another century.

DCP_0003My grandfather, Joe Cooper, and several generations of Coopers, were buried there — Cornelius, born May 7, 1801/died September 21, 1886 and Rutha, born September 21, 1804/died June 29, 1890, his grandparents; Samuel H. and Mary Jane, his parents. The oldest graves were outlined with bricks and marked by headstones whose letters were bleached by the sun and worn so smooth by wind and rain that reading them was difficult. I was sure there was nothing left of my family members but porous bones, faded cloth, and maybe a bit of metal from a belt or button, but my imagination conjured up visions of how they might have looked and lived and loved. Years later, I did see a picture of Cornelius and Rutha, a stern and sturdy couple, which did not exactly coincide with my romantic interpretations of my ancestors. My grandmother, who died four months before I was born, was buried in the cemetery also. She saved my grandfather a space on her right. To her left was room for two more: Uncle Houston and Aunt Mable, possibly. They took special care of this family plot which might someday be their final home.

Uncle Houston loved to tell me something about each plot he worked on. He took pride in his work and diligently kept the nut grass at bay. He did sometimes use a mower for the grassy walkways between the graves, but around the headstones, the hoe was the only way to keep it neat.

Mary Lois, who died in the explosion at the school.

Mary Lois, who died in the explosion at the school.

Many headstones had small oval black-and-white photos of young children and teenagers, set lovingly in dark gray granite. Some were victims of the New London school disaster that occurred on March 18, 1937. Gas accumulated beneath the building ignited by a spark when someone turned on a sanding machine. The explosion killed 294 students and teachers in the building. Investigators concluded that, to save money, the school board and superintendent had approved tapping into a residue gas line containing “green gas,” which has no smell and could not be detected as it seeped beneath the building. Uncle Lamar and Aunt Ora King lost their only daughter, Mary Lois, in the blast. She had begged her mother to let her stay home from school that day to go shopping. Aunt Ora advanced to an old woman almost overnight. She never ventured out very much after that and spent most of her time in her rocking chair.

Others in the cemetery died of more common causes: pneumonia, diphtheria, childbirth, broken necks, car accidents, old age, drowning, and passion. One tombstone, etched with a bouquet of roses, marked the remains of a young wife shot to death by her husband, who caught her down by a creek in the very act of sin with another man. Her lover was wisely and discreetly laid to rest in the next county. The husband, acquitted, lived to be an old man and was buried in another part of the cemetery with his wealthy ancestors. A tall monument resembling an obelisk marked his site; he apparently never remarried and slept alone next to his loyal kin.

Some small plots contained the remains of an unnamed child born too soon and departed before the family could even give it a name other than “Infant Son of…” or “Infant Daughter of…” One featured a resting lamb atop a tiny headstone and read, “Beloved child of Will and Beulah Jones /Sleep with the Angels.” Another revealed how very short her time on earth had been, “Sara Ellen Thompson/Born April 20, 1891/Died December 14, 1891.”

DCP_0010Those left behind today seem to have less inclination and time to spend with their loved ones and friends once the burial service is over. They seldom visit their resting places to say hello, seek advice, share good fortune, lament a bit of bad luck, introduce the latest grandchild, or bring fresh flowers.

With no Uncle Houston to tend my grave, I choose not to slumber eternally in one of those practical generic perpetual care cemeteries that are maintained impersonally by teams of workers riding John Deere mowers and listening to country-and-western music on their headphones. The cemeteries may be well kept, but they are as dull as a recycled eulogy or taped songs at a funeral. They simply lack character and drama. Who would want to visit such a place anyway? What if no one ever came to visit me there? Despite my maternal attempts to educate my children about the rewards and duties of visiting the cemetery, I maintain meager hope of regular visits from either of them after I am gone. With no regrets, consolations, or excuses, my husband cites statistics regarding wives living longer than their husbands and is thus exempt from such final duties. So…cremate my used-up earthly representation and scatter the remains over the sea with love, joy, and remembrance.

Until then, I will cross my fingers when passing a cemetery!


2014 12 15 Xmas Photos 014 (2)Jo Nell Huff retired from the administrative side of healthcare after working for United Healthcare, Prudential, Aetna, and other healthcare related organizations.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi (formally Corpus Christi State University).  Briefly she wrote for a small local newspaper.  As an outlet for her writing she started a blog,, in 2011 and writes about tales, trails, and connections to almost anything. She lives on the Gulf Coast of Texas with her husband.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday.  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Burden of Wings

Burden of WingsBurden of Wings by Mauro Marinelli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Photographer Mauro Marinelli turned to polaroids to capture the cemeteries through which he found himself wandering. The nature of polaroids lends itself to glimpses rather than views, to details rather than landscapes of grief. Marinelli liked how the film softened edges and shadows, giving the grave sculptures a touch of myth.

BurdenofWings6-150x150Some of the most beautiful photographs are the most ephemeral: the shadow of an angel reaching down to the rosebud on a grave, flowers withering in closeup beside the Pieta’s wounds, the flare of the setting sun off a stone cross. In other cases, Marinelli highlights the sculptor’s art in the raise of a stone eyebrow, a kiss captured in bronze, a marble finger raised to cold stone lips.

The essay at the back of the book is lovely, too. Marinelli says he’s “crazy about cemeteries…as you might be crazy about a deep friendship, about an eccentric friend who challenges you to actually engage and have a discourse with deadly depth.” He particularly likes the gifts left behind on the graves, “all these attempts to reconnect, to communicate over the great void of overwhelming silence, over the chasm of all that was never said, of all that can never be expressed again.”

My only quibble with the book is that the statuary photographed is not identified. There is a list of cemeteries at the back of the book, but nothing that ties the images to their place or time. The book is still a work of art, but not of functional use. It’s not a major point, but I love to be able to follow in the photographer’s steps, to see for myself. I wish the cemeteries were identified in their photographs.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I received a copy of Burden of Wings for review.  If you’ve read my other book reviews (there are many), you know that free books do not automatically win positive reviews.  I really do admire this book.

You can order your own copy of this beautiful book from Amazon here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Death’s Garden: The Cemetery that Changed My Life


All photos of Nunhead by Carole Tyrrell.

by Carole Tyrrell

It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year, the first death of someone really close to me. He’d been cremated, so there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.

This was Nunhead’s annual Open Day, so I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere. I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteries and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7. Lucinda Lambton once described them as a jet black necklace running through London. Nunhead was no municipal cemetery, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth. Inside the imposing gates was overgrown Gothic splendour: angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, a roofless chapel, a myriad of fascinating monuments and memorials. I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed to mourn. I was home.

I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly Friends of Nunhead Cemetery publications stall, which accompanied the general cemetery tours. You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to you. Often it was local residents who remembered playing in the cemetery after it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969. Its railings long gone for the war effort, nothing prevented anyone going in and exploring. I wouldn’t have been able to resist it. There were horrible tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewelery — and skeletons as well. Eventually, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, the local council bought it for £1.

Visitors often just said how creepy it was, but what an amazing place inside. One man told me that he was a psychic and could sense all the departed spirits around him. He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere. He seemed completely sincere. I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability.

Sometimes visitors would ask about one particular symbol, as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery. This was what they called ‘the dollar sign’ or the combination of the letters IHS which means Jesus Honimum Salvator. I found out what it was for future questions, which led me onto a fascination with the meaning of cemetery symbols.

As a result, I created the Symbols tour and began my career as a tour guide. Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation. It’s always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group and all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.

Nunhead2But they’re always very keen. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, I kept turning round, thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end. Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations, they didn’t put them in chronological order in the graveyard, so we have to run about a bit.

I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching our largest monument: the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, Turkey. It takes up an entire room of the museum. I was always interested in history at school and my involvement in cemeteries has been a marvellous way to keep involved.

You never know what you might find in a cemetery, despite how familiar you are with it. In 2013, during a long winter, we discovered an unusual anchor-shaped tombstone commemorating a sailor killed in the First World War, although not buried there. In Winter 2014, I was updating my tour notes. Whilst walking along a familiar path, I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before. I will have to do some more research on it.

I always emphasise on the Symbols tour that it’s an introduction to the subject and there are many more to found. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it. In Nunhead, we have one 15-year-old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board, and the mask of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.

faceI’ve only had one strange experience in the cemetery, or rather, outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a Christmas social at a local community centre. As I passed by the cemetery‘s high wall along deserted Linden Grove, I heard children’s voices from inside the cemetery. As it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing. The houses opposite didn’t have any windows open. I walked on and the voices faded behind me.

The Brockley footpath runs along one of the high walls of the cemetery. Ill-lit, it is pitch black at night. Atmospheric, to say the least. I was making my way along it as a shortcut to an evening walk. Whenever I looked back, I could see that the darkness catching up behind me. I did walk a little faster after that.

I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice. The way in which the dead are treated are often an indication of how the living are treated. Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero. Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited. Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirkyard, but that’s another story. However, Nunhead will always feel like home. No famous people, no royal connections, but instead a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill, as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.

portraitCarole Tyrrell has always had a desire to walk on the darker side of life. A published ghost story writer, her passion for cemeteries and graveyards began after her father died and she felt a need to be where the dead were remembered.  She visited cemeteries in New York, Venice, Edinburgh, and all over the UK, but she prefers slightly overgrown Victorian cemeteries where ivy-clad angels watch as she discovers the stories behind every epitaph.  She is a cemetery tour guide, specialising in the intriguing subject of symbols, and has her own blog called Shadows Fly Away. You can keep up with her on Facebook.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.)  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments