The photo prompt for this week was lunchtime: not an easy topic to illustrate on a blog about cemeteries. I usually shy away from photographing strangers when I see them in graveyards, in order to respect their privacy. I have seen people picnicking from time to time: everything from sitting in folding lawn chairs and hoisting bottles of beer in Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills to seated on a quilt and chiming their wine glasses together in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.
People used to picnic in graveyards all the time. Once cemeteries ceased to be burial grounds right in the heart of town, it took time and effort to reach them, especially in the days before paved roads. If you went to visit your relatives, you packed a lunch and intended to set a spell.
I have a couple of vintage postcards of picnickers, but my favorite doesn’t show any people. It’s labeled “Summerhouse, Prairie River Cemetery, Centreville, Michigan.” The summerhouse is basically a thatch-roofed pavilion with rough straight trees holding up a conical roof. Welcoming bent-wood benches wait inside.
Summerhouses were common in cemeteries — usually in the south, I believe — where a visitor would want some respite from the sun. Often they had enough room that you could erect a rough table and spread out your feast.
If you type Prairie River Cemetery into Google, only one by that name comes up. Centreville, Michigan, despite its name, lies in the southwest corner of the state, between Kalamazoo and Elkhart, Indiana, not too far from the shores of Lake Michigan. Google maps shows Centreville surrounded by farms even now.
Findagrave has a list of graves in the cemetery, but no historical overview for it. The USGW has a list of cemetery photographs, but the interface is clunky and frustrating. I don’t know if the summerhouse still stands.
My favorite part of the postcard is the message written in spidery cursive on the back: “Dear Cousin: So glad you and Marshal should clasp hands once more. So old fashion like. Wish we had some more ice cream as it is warm here.” It’s postmarked 1911.