by Sharon Pajka
Fred Gwynne was an American actor who passed just shy of his 67th birthday in 1993. If I played a clip, I’m pretty sure that you would recognize his distinctive bass-baritone voice. Most of us know him as lovable Herman Munster or even his later role as the endearing and knowledgeable neighbor in Pet Sematary. When I announced where I was going, my brother immediately dropped lines from My Cousin Vinny.
It’s probably important to note right here that I don’t get googlie-eyed over celebrity. In fact, when I hear the term “Hollywood Actor,” I usually tune out. I’m not necessarily making it a goal to visit actors’ resting places, but there are a few actors who mean something to me. Mr. Gwynne is certainly one of them. When I learned that Gwynne was buried in an unmarked grave in Finksburg, Maryland, I figured I would take a journey to his graveside alone.
Gwynne is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church cemetery, which lies behind the church. Sandy Mount Church has a long history (historic listing). A deed from September 28, 1827 shows that the land was conveyed from Allen Baker to five trustees, under the condition that they erect a house of worship. In 1855, there was a controversy about whether to allow enslaved Africans to worship with their “masters.” The church divided and part of the congregation moved to another location and began Pleasant Grove Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1943, they were reunited.
In 1867, three stonemasons by the names of Ward, Bush, and Shipley built Sandy Grove’s stone sanctuary. A legend says that because the three men had gone out drinking, the front walls appear slightly irregular. It would be fascinating to find more information about the cemetery itself, but what I have discovered has been quite limited. While the cemetery is not very large, there are some old gravestones.
Why Gwynne’s remains rest in an unmarked grave is not clear. As far as I can tell, at the end of his life, Gwynne wanted to be Fred Gwynne the man and not Fred Gwynne the actor. In an article in Harvard’s The Crimson (2001), his daughter Madyn Gwynne said, “He was a far more complex character than the one he played on The Munsters.” Of course he was! Gwynne studied portrait-painting before enlisting in the Navy in World War II. He served as a radio operator in a submarine-chasing vessel. Afterward, he attended the New York Phoenix School of Design and Harvard University. I was excited to learn that he was also a children’s author. His books include It’s Easy to See Why, A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, The King Who Rained, Best In Show, Pondlarker, The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, and A Little Pigeon Toad.
While he may have tried to distance himself from roles that rhymed with his Herman Munster character, Gwynne noted in a 1982 interview that “I might as well tell you the truth, I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try to, I can’t stop liking that fellow.”
Soon before Gwynne passed, he and his wife bought land in Taneytown, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore. During that time, he worked as a voice-over artist in commercials. Within a year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he passed away, his funeral was private.
Thanks to Findagrave.com, which pointed me in the direction of Tod Benoit’s Where Are they Buried?, I found a picture of Gwynne’s grave with the description “approximate yet accurate location of Fred Gwynne’s final resting place at Sandymount [sic] Methodist.”
“Walk into the cemetery behind the church and near the back is a distinctive Shannon stone. About twenty feet in front and to the left of the Shannon stone, Fred is buried in a grave that, but for the grass covering it, has no marking of any kind.” (Where Are they Buried? Tod Benoit, p. 179)
When I researched the journey, I did not expect many people would want to visit a grave that did not even have a marker. Of course, my friends are not most people. On a somewhat chilly March afternoon, a fellow blogger and I took a road trip from Washington, D.C. to Finksburg. We’d only met in person a month prior. Although her home was more than 4,000 miles away, in Finland, my new friend just happened to be in the States for an internship. Because she had only seen a small part of the U.S., I suggested taking the journey together, so that she could also see a bit of the countryside.
We headed out on Thursday, which was a pretty beautiful day to be in a cemetery. Since we could not find a local florist, we picked up flowers at a grocery. GPS made it fairly simple to find the cemetery, which included obelisks and other traditional turn-of-the-century markers. On the side of the church stood numerous old graves that could use a bit of restoration. The Rush family gravestone stood near the parking lot. I thought it was a stunning example of craftsmanship.
Gwynne’s plot is located in the back of the cemetery, in a section that appears much more modern. Most of the cemeteries that I have visited are quite wooded. At Sandy Mount, one can stand near Gwynne’s resting place and see for what seems like miles. In the distance, there is even a windmill. Not a bad place to spend forever, if you ask me.
Of course, neither of us ever knew Fred-Gwynne-the-man, so we could only discuss the characters he played. Naturally, the character of Herman Munster stuck with us.
I think it’s easy to start comparing The Addams Family and The Munsters. Both series aired from 1964-1966. When Jade and I were standing graveside, she stated that the family of The Munsters was a bit dysfunctional. I wasn’t quite sure why I felt the urge to defend these characters.
I’m slowly processing; trying to grasp each reflection has been like grabbing a cloud. I’ve always been much more connected to the Munsters than to the Addams Family. This could be because The Munsters aired as reruns right after school, so I grew up watching the old episodes. Also, I think what connected me to the Munster family was their working-class roots. The Addams Family appeared to be independently wealthy, while Herman Munster had to go off to work at the funeral home with his enormous lunchbox. He even started out as the “nail boy,” working his way up through the business.
In many ways, the Munster characters come across as a typical American family. Mr. Munster is (at least stereotypically) the all-American Dad, who is a bit childlike but who always means well. Viewers learn that he used to be in the army and fought in WWII.
So many of the episodes followed the formula of fitting in: immigrants coming to America to live the American dream in an old house that they thought was just right (albeit dusty and dilapidated, just like our own homes). I guess I connect because, in many ways, the Munsters’ story is my story. My family immigrated and always thought they blended in, even when their Polish roots stuck out. Just like the Munster family, they didn’t mind. They loved being themselves. They loved being here.
While I must respect Mr. Gwynne and his family’s wish to keep his resting place quiet, visiting a grave is a way to pay our respect, a way to say “Thank You!” The trip was a way to connect with someone who grew up on the other side of the world, over one actor who made a difference in both of our lives.
Mr. Gwynne, as the character of Mr. Munster, taught me that “It doesn’t matter what you look like. What matters is the size of your heart and the strength of your character.” (The Munsters, “Eddie’s Nickname,” Season 1, episode 19, aired January 28, 1965.)
Sharon Pajka is a professor of English. For fun, she studied to become a Master Tour Guide and gives tours in American Sign Language at her favorite garden cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Her blog Goth Gardening uses gardening as a metaphor for living as she shares how some plants & flowers, creepy things, and the dead brought her back to life.
This essay appears in Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries, available in glorious full color in paperback and hardcover from Blurb.