Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Taphophilic Transformation of a Tender Tot

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Despite the date on this sign, Wisconsin’s Blossomberg Cemetery has existed in some form since at least the 1880s. Photo © Chris Raymond.

by Chris Raymond

“Ew, why would you go for a walk in a cemetery?” Ignorant Teen exclaimed.

“Cemeteries are peaceful, interesting places,” Patient Mom explained.

The year was 1980 and, unbeknownst to 14-year-old Ignorant Teen (a.k.a. me), Patient Mom had just transmitted the taphophilia pathogen without sneeze, cough, kiss, or touch after returning from her morning constitutional during a New England family vacation.

Lacking natural antibodies (and still unsure four decades later how this “cemetery-love bug” transmits itself), this initial seed festered in my system unseen, growing, waiting for the perfect time to strike.

“Why the f*** does she find a creepy cemetery interesting?” Ignorant Teen often pondered aloud afterward as this gravestone germ gestated, always when Patient Mom was out of earshot.

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Blossomberg Cemetery remains a working cemetery today since adding seven more acres of undeveloped land, as the date on this memorial bench attests. Photo © Chris Raymond

That autumn, a few months after initial infection, the family packed up our “refrigerator on wheels,” an old-school, white Volvo wagon, and headed several hours northeast to Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin, for our annual camping trip. (If you look at the palm of your right hand, fingers extended and held together, Wisconsin is your hand, Door County is your thumb, and the park sits on the left edge of your thumb’s topmost section.)

Now, when my family went “camping,” I mean we voluntarily forsook every modern freakin’ comfort for an entire week. A sooty campsite firepit served as hearth; a mildewed canvas Sears tent served as home. Backs turned on comfy mattresses and the cleanliness of modern plumbing, the Raymond clan instead sought the gentle nighttime embrace of every rock and tree root skulking beneath sleeping bags, the bracing fragrance of pit toilets, and the festival of communicable nastiness lurking on the floor of every public-shower.

These hardships aside, this particular camping trip still offered Ignorant Teen a new roughing-it luxury: escape, in the form of his father’s hand-me-down Schwinn 10-speed bike hauled atop the mobile-refrigerator’s roof rack. Despite its narrow, unpadded, colonoscopy-inspired seat, this aged metallic blue beauty nevertheless promised the freedom for Surly Teen (as I was also becoming) to wander off, to explore, to discover.

Thus, late one autumn afternoon in 1980 — probably after churlishly responding “I will!” over my shoulder to Patient Mom’s “Be back in time for dinner!” — I mounted my bike for a ride. Soon finding myself on Shore Road, which rings the exterior of Peninsula State Park and offers many scenic views of water and woods, I noticed a sign for Mengelberg Lane to my left.

Channeling my inner Jean Nicolet, the French explorer famed for “discovering” this area of Wisconsin centuries earlier, I turned and headed east along this pastoral but otherwise nondescript road, enjoying the zing of my narrow bike wheels on asphalt, the feel of wind in my hair at speed, glad to be alive.

After several hundred yards, I discovered Blossomberg Cemetery and, in that moment, the taphophilia pathogen manifested and I got it, finally and fully understanding what my mother meant.

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Tall stately maples, oaks, and pines still create alluring areas of sunlight and shadow across Blossomberg’s landscape, as of 2013. Photo © Chris Raymond.

Late-afternoon sunlight struggled to penetrate the stately maples, oaks, and pines guarding the perimeter. I noticed the stillness blanketing the cemetery like a shroud. High above, a few breeze-swayed tree branches moved soundlessly, like teardrops at a funeral, as if even these timeless leafy sentinels dared not disturb the solemnity within their everlasting embrace.

Dismounting my bike, I wandered slowly between silent stone rows. I explored areas of sunlight and shadow across the still, dappled landscape, careful to avoid stepping directly on a grave out of respect. The crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet sounded louder than a surreptitious candy wrapper in church.

Initially, the chiseled birth and death years of the residents drew my attention. The reality of “forever” at journey’s end nagged my adolescent consciousness.

The earliest Blossomberg Cemetery gravestone dates to 1881, which predated the sale of this once-private family cemetery by nine years, when the Andersons sold two acres of land for $100 to Wisconsin’s Gibraltar Township (located just south of the park). While I didn’t spot that particular marker, slightly younger stones caught my attention. “Wow, that tombstone was sitting here 60-70 years before I was even born,” I marveled. I continued exploring, seeking earlier dates.

Eventually, confronted by the vastness of time and the permanence of death writ in stone, the immutable physical evidence of granite gravestones, marble markers, and lives lost challenging the infallibility of Ignorant Teen’s perceptions after 14 whole years of experience, I started noticing the condition of the cemetery’s older monuments. Many inscriptions were illegible. Some tombstones had toppled. Saddened by apparent familial forgetfulness due to the passage of time, I nevertheless heard the silent message whispered by Blossomberg’s monuments — as well as those in every cemetery, everywhere — provided we’re willing to listen: I too was here on this planet, just as you are right now. This is your fate.

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Shot in 1980, the author’s first-ever cemetery photo still speaks to him decades later. Photo © Chris Raymond.

Continuing my exploration after this existential epiphany, I soon encountered a particularly captivating cemetery headstone that powerfully conveyed this newly learned life-lesson: a four-sided obelisk with two orphaned slabs resting against its base, the entire trio weathered and mildewed, forlorn and forgotten. Finding the visual contrast between nature and neglect, life and loss, irresistible, I ran back to my bike to retrieve my camera.

Photographed during the now-archaic film age, I waited impatiently several weeks after this camping trip for my lab-developed 35mm slides in their familiar Kodak-yellow box to arrive in my mailbox. Soon after, I again waited impatiently for a local photo lab to finish the enlargement I ordered.

Today, that print still hangs in my home, as it always has wherever I’ve lived since that profound, pristine autumn afternoon long ago. Frame dusty, image slightly faded and usually overlooked as I rush past — preoccupied and too often taking for granted life and loved ones — this photograph waits quietly and patiently, just like its original subject matter, until the next moment when I pause and again hear Blossomberg Cemetery’s whispered reminder.

Sources:
“The Cemeteries of Peninsula State Park” by Lauren Bremer, September 1, 2013. Retrieved April 18, 2016. https://doorcountypulse.com/the-cemeteries-of-peninsula-state-park.

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Death_ChrisRaymond_SMALLChris Raymond has served as About.com’s expert on dying, funerals, and grief since 2012. Previously, he served as editor of The Director magazine for more than 12 years. The Director is the official monthly publication of the National Funeral Directors Association and the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors, embalmers, and other deathcare professionals. Chris has spoken on numerous death and dying topics to audiences of funeral service professionals and consumers alike,and his articles have appeared in leading funeral service publications worldwide. You can connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

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Death's Garden001About 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 or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: Martinique—an Island of Mystery

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Photos and postcards of Martinique from K. R. Morrison.

by K. R. Morrison

Martinique was one of the stops on our 1996 cruise of the Caribbean, one that my husband and I were eager to explore. After all, this might be the only time we’d be here, and we wanted to make the most of it.

We did not book an excursion, deciding to nose about on our own. One of our favorite things to do when on a trip in foreign lands is to walk through areas that are not on the usual tourist agenda. We love to see and experience what the locals do. Tourist stuff is not really our cup of tea.

That morning, we filed off the ship with the rest of the sightseers and had a quick scan of the area. There were the usual booths wharfside that catered to the tourist trade, so we felt obliged to check those out. T-shirts, hats, the usual blah-blah-blah, all sold by charming, smiling natives. We made a quick pass and then plunged into the real world of the island.

Down a side street we blithely ambled, then turned a corner onto a sunlit square. In its center was a statue of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. I’m sure that it was lovely at one time; in fact, I have a postcard that attests to that fact.

Josephine postcardNot so much now. The statue’s head had been knocked off, the body splattered with red…paint, I hope…and there was some graffiti on it in French that was anything but warm and welcoming. I don’t recall the exact words, but I do remember that it was racist in nature—and Hubby and I were on the wrong side of the sentiment. I can tell you that the atmosphere chilled considerably after we read it.

However, we decided to keep going; after all, we figured, this was probably a fluke. We reasoned that, if graffiti in New York was taken seriously, there would be no tourist trade there at all. Same would apply here, we supposed.

We were, however, on our best behavior from there on. No  blades of grass were bent or stones kicked, at least not intentionally. I felt it best to not look at anyone directly—that dockside charm and warmth seemed distinctly missing in this area. To say we were conscious of every movement around us would be putting it mildly. I was starting to think that the better option for the day would have been to stay on the ship.

After a short eternity of walking, a building loomed ahead of us, the sight of which gave us great relief.

A church! Surely goodness and kindness would follow us…

We felt like refugees seeking sanctuary when we crossed the threshold into that holy place. All the familiar sights of home greeted us. We felt at home and at peace. For the first time since seeing the ill-used Josephine, we could let our guard down.

It was a pleasure to walk down the hushed aisles, breathing in the aromas of burning candles and old incense, craning our necks to see the arches that reached heavenward, hearing whispered prayers of people there with us. The place was simple, but held a beauty in its simplicity that delighted my soul.

At the opposite end of the building, a double door opened to the churchyard. We decided to explore the sacred grounds of the church, seeing as others were already there.

The yard was squared off by wrought-iron fencing, with a path that bisected it and met up with one that took the perimeter of grass. Massive trees shaded the yard and the church, adding to the serenity of the place. It was a beautiful, peaceful garden, and would have been perfect…

…except that someone had piled mounds of what looked like grey dirt everywhere. These piles were left on top of the grass in heaps only a few feet from each other. It seemed really odd to us.

Until, that is, we got a good look at what made up these mounds of “dirt.”

They were, in actuality, ashes. Human ashes. And when we looked closely, we could see bits of bone poking up here and there.

This was Martinique’s idea of a cemetery! Ashes were just piled on each other and left to blow away on the wind. We had been walking around on what used to be people for some time now.

The creeped-out factor hit its limit at that point. Honestly, I don’t remember anything from that realization until we were back on the ship. I’m sure, though, that I wiped my shoes really well before I left that churchyard.

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Kay photoK. R. Morrison has lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 25 years. She moved there from California, after the Loma Prieta earthquake caused her to rethink her stance on “never moving again.” At her first sight of Oregon, she never looked back.

She wrote her first book, Be Not Afraid, after a nightmare. A second book, UnHoly Trinity, launched this past January. The third and fourth in the series are being worked on now. She has also co-authored a book entitled Purify My Heart with Ruthie Madison. She edits for her publishing house, Linkville Press. Book reviewing and editing for indie authors take up a lot of her time as well.

Please check out her Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/K.-R.-Morrison/e/B009RBRJ0C/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

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Death's Garden001About 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 or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

 

Death’s Garden: Muzak for the Dead

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Vintage postcard of Forest Lawn’s wrought iron gates – Taller than Buckingham Palace’s! From the collection of Loren Rhoads.

by Dana Fredsti

Cemeteries have never been scary places to me, despite my penchant for movies where corpses claw out of their coffins and munch on human flesh. The first time I saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it scared the hell out of me, especially the first scene in the old graveyard. Even so, it has always amazed me that some people are actually afraid to visit cemeteries. I suppose, if I was in Forest Lawn and rotted hands started poking out of the ground, I might change my mind. Until then, cemeteries are mildly fascinating places to stroll with my husband.

When I was no more than five years old, my family visited a cousin’s grave after he’d been killed in Vietnam. He was buried in a military cemetery at Point Loma, out above the ocean. I remember standing around the flat white rectangular marker with my mom, dad, sister, and grandmother. Thousands of identical markers dotted a sea of green grass, which spread around us as far as I could see. I had to go to the bathroom really badly and couldn’t understand exactly why we had to stare at this white slab on the ground. I didn’t remember my cousin. The concept of death was not within my grasp at that age. There were no bathrooms in sight.

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Vintage postcard of Forest Lawn from the air.

I prefer old-style cemeteries, the ones with crumbling tombstones and old mausoleums. Unfortunately, my current hometown of Los Angels is the land of McCemeteries: Forest Lawn, the chain of full-service mortuary/cemeteries. One-stop shopping for all your burial needs. “One call takes care of everything” comforts the sign above the gates. Forest Lawn Glendale is a veritable theme park of the dead, complete with museums (filled with interesting armor, old coins, etc., but very little to do with death. I guess too much death-oriented stuff would depress the tourists.), gift shops (where you can buy postcards and religious kitsch – how about an ashtray with Jesus on it?), gardens, a lake with resident swans…and bathrooms.

Another amenity of Forest Lawn Glendale is piped-in music in parts of the cemetery, such as the Garden of Everlasting Peace and the Garden of Eternal Freedom. It’s really bad music, sort of Muzak for the dead. I wonder if the management thinks the music soothes those visiting their dead friends or if it is a holdover of the superstition of not disturbing the dead. I personally can’t imagine a worse fate than lying in a box, forced to listen to elevator music for the rest of eternity. It would send me clawing out of my grave just to change the tunes. I would be much happier, and more likely to stay put, if there was some lively music to listen to, maybe some activity going on around me. This is assuming, of course, that my “self” or “soul” or whatever is still sentient.

Our house is a half-hour walk from Forest Lawn Glendale, which provides at least another hour of exercise to cross. My husband and I recently walked over, stopping for coffee and chocolate croissants along the way. We hiked past the tacky “European” sculptures, up to the Garden of Everlasting Peace to visit Errol Flynn’s grave. Settling on a bench, we toasted Errol with coffee. (Alas, we had no whiskey.)

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Family monument at Forest Lawn

As we ate breakfast, we were spotted by a security guard. He told us amiably that eating wasn’t allowed in the cemetery, but he’d look the other way if we didn’t leave a mess. He added that “some people” got really upset when they saw folks with food around the graves, so we should “keep a low profile.” He wandered off, leaving us to speculate what about eating would offend people. I mean, I could see a problem if we had a food fight over someone’s dead relative or made orgasmic noises, but otherwise, what’s the big deal? I suppose that the dead might possibly get pissed off that we’re up top enjoying life while they’re stuck in caskets, but it seems ridiculous that such a basic function of life should offend anyone, dead or living. Maybe it comes from the same train of thought that inspires epitaphs like “God Grant That He Lie Still”: the fear that the dead won’t stay dead. As much as people miss their loved ones, who wants ’em back after they’ve been rotting in the ground for a few years?

I’d rather not be buried in a place like Forest Lawn. I definitely don’t want my funeral held at any mortuary that serves up an impersonal eulogy by a Rent-o-Minister babbling on about life and death, children and rebirth, how the newly deceased will be “walking the fields of Heaven” and rejoicing in the glory of the afterlife. In short, nothing that relates to the actual deceased at all.

My grandma’s funeral was that impersonal. It was held a couple of weeks ago at Greenwood Mortuary in San Diego. My sister and I drove down to attend. The eulogy was so generalized that, for me, it actually lessened the grief. I don’t know who the minister was talking about, but it was certainly not my Grandma. At one point, he said something like, “The first thing she’ll do upon entering the Gates of Heaven will be to look for her husband and gently call his name.” My immediate thought was “Nonsense!” The first thing Grandma would do would be to yell, “REX!” for her psychotic terrier – who certainly shouldn’t have been admitted through the Pearly Gates in the first place – in a strident Bronx accent. Then, maybe, she’d check around for Grandpa. I almost committed the unforgivable sin of laughing when that popped into my mind.

The final touch of impersonality was added by one of our uncles, a landscape artist, when we put flowers on Grandma and Grandpa’s graves. Everyone had a single carnation (compliments of the house), which we placed on the headstones. After we’d all finished, our uncle rearranged the flowers to suit his idea of what looked “right.” That act trivialized our sentiment and simultaneously underlined the tone of the whole funeral.

The Irish have the right idea: a loud, rowdy wake where they celebrate living, not dying, where people get smashed and tell their favorite stories about the deceased. (“Ah, he was a real bastard, but I loved him, so help me, God!”) My husband and I talked about having our ashes forged into sword hilts, with the requisite curse placed on the sword, naturally, to prevent theft. This way, we’ll be around our family, passed down through generations and, hopefully, remembered. I don’t want to lie beneath another weathered headstone in a cemetery, with flowers replaced once a month until there’s no one left to remember me.

Forest Lawn is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to be dead there.

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This essay appeared in the original Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, published by Automatism Press in 1996. Reprinted here with permission.

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Dana photoDana Fredsti is an ex B-movie actress with a background in theatrical combat (a skill she utilized in Army of Darkness as a sword-fighting Deadite and fight captain). Through seven plus years of volunteering at EFBC/FCC, Dana’s been kissed by tigers and had her thumb sucked by an ocelot with nursing issues. She’s addicted to bad movies and any book or film, good or bad, which includes zombies. She’s the author of the Ashley Parker series, touted as Buffy meets The Walking Dead, and the zombie noir novella, A Man’s Gotta Eat What a Man’s Gotta Eat.

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Death's Garden001About 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 or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

 

Vacation in Cuba

My dear friend Jeff is on a continuing mission to travel to all the ends of the earth.  He’s just returned from Cuba and sent me these photos from the Colon Cemetery in Havana.  With his permission, I share them with you.

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You can see Jeff’s photos of his trip to Croatia and Bosnia here.

Solitude and Specters at Highland Lawn Cemetery

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All Highland Lawn photos by Joy Neighbors.

by Joy Neighbors

Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana, has provided me with many great afternoons. Located on 139 acres of “hills and hollows,” the rural-style cemetery offers seclusion and peace as you stroll along meandering paths that lead to several lakes. It is a cemetery designed to focus on the beauty of the grounds, not belabor itself as a place of death. It does the job admirably.

The entrance features a Romanesque Revival Bell Tower constructed of Indiana limestone. As a Hoosier, born and bred, I know the stories of the Bedford limestone rock queries, the grueling work required to remove the stones, and how Bedford, Indiana was once home to some of the most skilled stone carvers in the world. These limestone monuments hold a special appeal to me, not only for their appearance, but also for the stories about the men who did the work.

ChapelThe cemetery’s chapel can be found by trekking up the highest hill, but it’s well worth the exertion. Built in 1893, the Richardsonian Romanesque-style chapel features gabled roofs, a domed brick casement, and stained glass windows throughout.

Highland Lawn is the second largest cemetery in Indiana, with close to 27,000 graves and numerous mausoleums, each individually owned. Some crypts hold only one body; others hold up to sixteen. Although mausoleums are scattered throughout the grounds, there is one path that makes up a “Mausoleum Row.” It’s interesting to see how much detail certain stones depict along this thoroughfare. Many are covered in funerary art and sculpture: just another way the Victorian’s promoted their social standing. After all, the larger the monument, the more prosperous and well–known the family. (A fact they didn’t want forgotten in death.)
Among those mausoleums in the cemetery, there are two legends that I love to share.

Companionable Souls

John-Hinkl-MausoleumTwo pleasant specters at the cemetery are of Terre Haute businessman John Hienl and his dog, Stiffy Green. Hienl was a former businessman from the early part of the 20th century. With pipe in hand, elderly Heinl would stroll the streets with his faithful dog, Stiffy Green, so named because of his stiff walking gait and startling greenish eyes. Stiffy was friendly, but ferociously protective of Mr. Heinl. He didn’t allow anyone to get too close to his beloved master.

When John Heinl passed away on December 31st, 1920, Stiffy was inconsolable. He sat by the coffin at the funeral, then followed the family to the graveyard, where he took up post at the mausoleum doors. There he remained, guarding his master in death as he had in life. Family and friends made many trips to the cemetery that winter to retrieve Stiffy and take him home, only for him to return to his master’s crypt the next day.

Within a couple of months, Stiffy had mourned himself to death. Heinl’s wife was so touched by the little dog’s unwavering love and devotion that she had him stuffed in the sitting position he had assumed for so long on those cold mausoleum steps. Stiffy was then placed inside the tomb, reunited at last with his master.

Stiffy-GreenIt wasn’t long before visitors began noticing that Stiffy had mysteriously moved from one side of the crypt to the other, and then back. Sightseers and vandals wouldn’t leave the mausoleum alone, damaging doors and windows trying to see inside. In 1985, thugs shot out Stiffy’s right glass eye. The family decided it was time for the guard dog to be moved. The Vigo County Historical Society Museum agreed to take him. There, the Terre Haute Lions Club built a replica of the Heinl mausoleum so that today, Stiffy Green is still on guard, awaiting his master.

Rumors still spread that at twilight, on cool autumn evenings, you can sometimes see an elderly man and his small dog walking near the Heinl crypt. The rich smell of pipe smoke hangs in the air. A low voice can be heard talking to his devoted companion, who answers back with a happy bark. Rest assured, there’s nothing to fear; it’s just John Hinel and Stiffy Green enjoying another evening stroll together through Highland Lawn Cemetery.

One Ringy Dingy

Sheets-MausoleumThe second eerie legend involves the Sheets family mausoleum, where Martin Sheets, his wife Susan, and baby Ethel are interred. Born in 1853, Martin lived into his early 70s, passing in 1926. He saw many technological changes come about during that time. The one newfangled invention he found an odd use for was the telephone.

You see, Martin had a fear of being buried alive, so he had a wall-hanging phone installed in the family mausoleum, just in case he was buried unconscious, woke up, and needed to summon help. His will stipulated that a phone line be run from his crypt to the cemetery office, where it was to be monitored. Martin set up an account in his name with Indiana Bell Telephone that kept the line paid for and active, just in case.

Now, the story could end here as a very odd, interesting bit of cemetery lore, but it doesn’t. When Sheets’ wife, Susan died years later of a stroke, she was found in the kitchen of their home with the phone in her hand. Many assumed she had been attempting to summon help. According to legend, when the mausoleum was unlocked to place Susan’s casket next to her husband’s, cemetery workers discovered the phone in the crypt was off the hook …

Eighty years after Martin Sheets was placed in the family mausoleum, the phone line was disconnected from the cemetery office – never known to have been physically used.

If you crave a day away in a fascinating cemetery, Highland Lawn is an excellent choice. Located at 4420 Wabash Avenue, it is just east of Terre Haute. I usually picnic on the grounds during a day of cemetery shooting, but fast food restaurants are located nearby. Remember: once you leave the cemetery, you’ll break the spell of tranquility that prevails here.

With its legacies, lore, and legends, this is one cemetery is well worth any Tombstone Tourist’s time.

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Joy in cemeteryJoy Neighbors is an avowed “Tombstone Tourist” with an avid interest in cemeteries, history, photography, and travel. She has researched and written her weekly cemetery culture blog, A Grave Interest, for over five years, and speaks throughout the Midwest and South on cemetery topics for genealogy, history, library, and education conferences. Visit her web page for a listing of presentations, or message her through A Grave Interest’s Facebook page or on Google+.

Editor’s note:  I interviewed Joy a couple of years ago about A Grave Interest.

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Death's Garden001About 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 or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.