I’m back from the Association for Gravestone Studies conference and slowly getting back to work. Last week was a wonder, full of beautiful things and interesting people doing fascinating work. I learned so much that I look forward to sharing with you in the next while!
Weather delayed my flights long enough that I missed the lantern tour of Wooster Cemetery in Danbury, but I was up and on the bus for Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in the morning. Woodlawn will show up soon as one of the Cemeteries of the Week, but I wanted to call out the absolute highlight of the place: I found the grave of my heroine Nellie Bly. In case you don’t recognize the name, Bly was the nom de plume of a crusading female journalist. Reading about her as a kid inspired my career choice. It meant a lot to me to be able to stand at her grave.
Thursday morning I gave my talk about 199 Cemeteries to a group of people who are as fanatic about cemeteries as I am. I was really touched when several people brought me their copies of the book to sign — that thing is heavy to carry on a plane! Even better, one of the longtime members read my dedication to AGS aloud from the book. They asked great, knowledgable questions and totally understood that 199 cemeteries is just not very many, if you’re going to be comprehensive.
That afternoon, a couple of my cemetery role models invited me to explore the Newtown Village Cemetery with them. The lovely old cemetery spanned from sandstone monuments along the fence through Victorian marble to modern granite at the top of the hill. Several victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting are buried there, which brought the three of us to tears and led to a heartfelt conversation.
We rushed back for a meeting of the AGS local chapters, then slipped out again for a pizza feast. In the evening, I made it to a lecture about Native American mounds in Wisconsin cemeteries (the only ones I’ve seen were at Forest Hill in Madison), then jet lag and the emotional day sent me to bed.
Friday morning was spent poking around Danbury’s Wooster Cemetery, which has a wealth of white bronze markers. I was meant to be participating in a photography workshop, but I was too wound up and wanted to roam. It was a pretty day, full of dramatic clouds. Squirrels, chipmunks, and a large flock of Canadian geese were out chasing around. It felt good to clear my head.
That evening I attended lectures on sourcing epitaphs (thoroughly fascinating) and men killed while whaling (an impressive amount of work), followed by late-night talks on the Irish buried in Tolomato Cemetery, Pensacola’s rescued African American cemeteries, and a slideshow on animal headstones, followed by another on the Sandy Hook monuments.
Saturday was a rich, full day. After breakfast, it was back on the bus to visit New Haven, home of the Grove Street Cemetery. That one was featured in 199 Cemeteries, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it yet. Unfortunately, my photos don’t do justice to just how lovely the cemetery was. Friday’s beautiful warm weather had given way to the threat of thunderstorms, so Grove Street’s colors were muted. Grove Street is the first cemetery in America to sell grave plots pre-need, so that families could arrange to be buried together. It’s full of graves of Yale faculty members, famous inventors, and some remarkably lovely sculpture. It will show up soon as a Cemetery of the Week.
After much too short a time, I hustled over to Center Church on New Haven Green to see the New Haven Crypt. In the early 1800s, the church was built above a portion of the old cemetery on the green. When the headstones outside were removed in the 1820s, the segment of the burial ground beneath the church remained intact. Old winged skulls still mark graves that date as far back as the 1680s. I’ll do a Cemetery of the Week about the crypt, too, just so I can show off some more of my photos.
Finally, we stopped at the Milford Cemetery with only 45 minutes to spare. That cemetery had a collection of sandstone monuments with skulls and deeply morbid epitaphs, as well as a forest of weeping willow stones, and an amazing sculptural monument unlike anything else. The guides were very helpful in pointing me toward things of interest. I wish I’d had time to take some notes.
After that, we rushed back to the dorms where we were staying, dressed up, and sped off to the Oakley Awards reception, which recognizes groups or individuals who have rescued endangered graveyards. That was followed by the Forbes Award, given to someone who’s spent their career saving graveyards.
Once the banquet was over, I made it through two lectures about Australia cemeteries, including the Rookwood Necropolis — which I would very much like to visit — but I was worn out and didn’t make it through the late night talks.
So six cemeteries in four days — and so many conversations with people whose names I know from their work in and around cemeteries. For someone who has spent the last six months at home caring for a disabled kid, the conference was overstimulating and overwhelming and completely absorbing. My chief regret is that I didn’t get a chance to see the Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, which also appears in 199 Cemeteries. Who knows when I’ll be back in Connecticut again? But clearly I can’t do everything.
Next year’s AGS conference will be in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. I’d like to go, but that will depend on where I am with the Bay Area pioneer cemeteries book — and whether my advance will cover both a book tour and cross-country travel. I hope I can swing it, because I’d really like to talk with all my new friends again.
Besides, I didn’t come away with as much of a haul as I expected!
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