by M. Parfitt
It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning and I’m getting dressed. First, the stockings and shoes. Yep, shoes first. Then the voluminous hoop skirt, 150 inches in circumference, followed by the pillowy little bustle, then the dress skirt. Next, the bodice with its three-layer sleeves. Finally, the bonnet and gloves. Now I’m dressed and ready to step out into 1860. I’ll admit I’m cheating: there’s no uncomfortable corset holding me tight under that bodice. And I won’t be riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to my volunteer job today. I’ll catch the bus across the street from Home Depot, then I’ll transfer to a light rail train.
Along the way, drivers, pedestrians, and bus riders will stare, wave, and point. The brave ones will actually talk to me. My favorite question is, “Are you Amish?”
I’m not Amish. I’m a volunteer tour guide at Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery. I traipse around in my Civil War-era mourning dress, leading visitors from one tragic tale to the next, exposing the secrets Sacramento’s early residents took to their graves. Some of those secrets now feel like they’re my stories. Over the last five years, I’ve told the tales of nearly fifty “residents” of the cemetery. Some of these people performed heroic deeds; others died tragically. Some died in ridiculous circumstances that could peg them as Darwin Award winners. I’ve researched, rehearsed, “performed,” and internalized the stories of their lives (and deaths). I feel like I know these people. That sometimes makes it difficult to tell their stories without a pang of guilt.
Would Emily York really want people to know she accidentally set herself on fire in the same manner as a woman who accidentally set herself on fire only one week before? Didn’t she read the newspaper? Didn’t she learn from the other woman’s fatal mistake?
How would A. P. Smith feel if he knew I was telling his riches-to-rags tale over and over? The ending is always the same. The master horticulturist lost his vast, beautiful garden to a flood. His white Victorian mansion, his acres of fruit trees and flower gardens — everything he’d tended and cared for — washed away. He died old and broken in a small shack.
And Daisy Dias, whose story I cannot tell without choking up: How can you calmly describe the death of a seven-year-old in a pit of red-hot ashes? She died a hundred years ago, but her story is no less horrifying today.
I wish I could change the endings for these people, but I’m telling true stories. Each tour features an average of twelve tales of sorrow or bravery or foolishness, and I tell ’em as I find ’em. Hours of research — mostly in online newspaper repositories — brings long-forgotten events back to life, for better or worse.
That’s really what this is about: bringing the past back to life. The cemetery’s tongue-in-cheek motto is “Where history comes alive.” I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, so resurrecting the stories of Sacramento’s early residents is my way of bringing them back to life and sharing them with others so they’ll be remembered.
The cemetery’s tour season runs from February through November, with at least one Saturday-morning history tour each month. Every December, the Tour Commitee (a loose-knit group of tour guides) meets to hash out the following year’s tour topics and schedule. With over 25,000 “residents,” the topics seem endless and we never have to repeat a story. We’ve held tours about women, African Americans, brewers, baseball players, labor history, disasters, trains, headstone carvers, horse breeders and riders, politicians, drugs in the old west, temperance and prohibition, veterans. The list goes on and on. Oh, and we occasionally do repeat a story. Some stories are just that good.
I attend nearly every tour throughout the season. My main task is to take photos for the cemetery’s Facebook page. On those days, I wear jeans and a souvenir Historic City Cemetery t-shirt. Several times a year, however, I arrive early in my big black dress, hang out in the visitors’ center, rehearse, and wait for showtime. The clock strikes ten, and off we go. I never know what to expect when I step out of the visitors’ center with my headset microphone and portable amplifier. A small group of ten or twelve visitors is disappointing; a crowd of eighty is thrilling. I’m one of those crazies who loves public speaking. The more folks I can speak to, the better.
Most tours are conducted by a lead tour guide and a “helper” guide. Occasionally, a few other guides pitch in to tell a story or two. I’ve developed a good working relationship with Jean, a guide who’s smart and dependable and who obsesses over telling a good story, the same way I do. We’ve come up with a winner of a topic, and we’ve decided we’ll keep offering it every year as long as people are willing to show up for it. The topic? “A Dozen Ways to Die.” With so many thousands of stories, we figure we can keep going for close to 900 years without repeating a story.
I’m the lead tour guide by default. Jean doesn’t like to wear historic costumes and my dress attracts attention, so I do the introduction and conclusion. We’re actually equals, since we each tell six stories. After the twelfth story, when the audience expects us to thank them and send them away, we instead agonize over whether this audience has been really, really good — and therefore deserves a bonus story! So far, we’ve always decided to give it to them. Sometimes one of us tells the thirteenth story; other times another guide tells it. Having a third guide on hand is becoming increasingly important for this tour, because the crowd it draws seems to get bigger every year.
“A Dozen Ways to Die” is such a wide-open topic that each year brings new surprises. A friend once e-mailed me a yellowed newspaper clipping about her great-grandfather’s death, and asked if we’d ever told his story. We’d never heard of it! The following summer, Peter Beardslee’s fatal wagon-and-train collision made it into the tour, and my friend and her mother were there to hear it. When I introduced them as Peter’s descendants, the crowd broke into applause, which delighted me.
People like to complain about crime these days, kids these days, danger these days, and all the other problems we experience “these days.” I tell them to come to a cemetery tour. Nothing has changed, folks. A downtown park with a reputation as a hangout for transients and shady characters is no worse now than it was in the 1870s, when a pregnant woman shot her no-good boyfriend to death following a band concert, or the 1890s, when a gullible young man was tricked into shooting an innocent man who appeared to be arguing with a woman.
People died in workplace accidents, they died in house fires, and they died at the hands of jealous lovers. Despondent people committed suicide in a variety of shocking ways: by gunshot, by poison, even by drinking creosote. By telling their stories, I hope I can dispel the myth that “the good old days” were a time of innocence, peacefulness, respect, and integrity. People were just as petty, careless, irrational, and unfortunate as they are today.
The Tour Committee had its meeting last month. Jean and I need to start searching for this year’s Dozen. Often, while reading about a particular subject in an old newspaper, “shiny object syndrome” will hit — an unrelated article about another unfortunate person will jump out, and we’ll fall down the rabbit hole of endless research. Sometimes another guide will accidentally discover a good story this way, and pass it on to us.
Tour season starts with Sacramento Museum Day in February. I love Museum Day. We don’t schedule tours; we just wait at the front gates for visitors to show up, then we take them on abbreviated, unrehearsed tours that could feature anything from Mark Hopkins’ massive red-granite vault to Georgia Fisher’s sadly vandalized headstone. It’s a good way for tour guides to get back into the swing of things after a few months off, and it’s always fun to introduce the cemetery to people who had no idea we offered tours until they read about it in the Museum Day flyer.
My hope is that some of these newcomers will return for a tour, get hooked, and become “regulars.” One of our regulars travels all the way from Marysville every month. Bringing history alive for our visitors, both newcomers and regulars, is my job, and I take it seriously. Bringing back the stories of people whose lives have slipped into oblivion is my passion. I enjoy it tremendously.
I love being a cemetery tour guide. Maybe one of these days, I’ll make that sacrifice to comfort and wear a corset. Until then, I’ll continue to float among the headstones in my billowing hoop skirt, in search of the next fascinating story.
M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings. You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse. Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.
Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.
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 — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.