Category Archives: Facebook Cemetery Group

Sister Act: The Story of Clarissa Terwilliger

Clara Terry

Photos of Clara Terry’s grave by Melissa Cole. Used with permission.

by Laura Suchan

I am most definitely a cemetery tourist. No matter where I travel — neighbourhood, city, or country — I want to visit a cemetery. However, of all the cemeteries I’ve visited around the world, one of my favourites is located in my hometown of Oshawa, Ontario. Although there is not much known about the history of Union Cemetery, archival research indicates that the original 19 acres served as the Presbyterian burying ground and was purchased in 1848 from Robert and Euphemia Spears by the Secession Church.

The earliest recorded burial in the cemetery is that of Alexander Armstrong, a farmer and local magistrate, interred in 1837. The southwest corner of the property was the location of a brick Presbyterian Church (built in 1837), the original Presbyterian cemetery, a manse, and a school. The church is thought to be the first non-wooden public building in Ontario County. The large building sat 500 people and was used for church and educational meetings. The Church was destroyed by fire sometime after 1863. In 1875, the cemetery came under the ownership of a holding company, which hired noted landscape architect Heinrich (Henry) Adolph Engelhardt (1830-1897) to redesign the land. One of Engelhardt’s most famous design projects was Toronto’s spectacular Mount Pleasant Cemetery in 1874, now listed as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Engelhardt believed that every town and village should have one cemetery where people of all denominations could be buried. He felt it was important for burial grounds to be removed from churches. The location for a cemetery should, according to Engelhardt, “be carefully chosen, at some distance from the turmoil and bustle of active life, yet should be always easy of access. If the site chosen possesses natural advantages, such as hills and dales, groves and creeks, so much the better, but the improvements should agree and conform to the natural features of the place.”

Union Cemetery was designed with these principles in mind. Winding laneways and large trees make for a peaceful park-like setting, bringing to mind William Blake’s line “travelers repose and dream among my leaves.” I have often done that, enjoying contemplative walks throughout the grounds. Today the large cemetery encompasses more than 30 acres, 25,000 burials, and at least as many stories.

For me personally, one of the most interesting stories is about the unconventional Terwilliger sisters, particularly eldest sister Clarissa. Every town has them: the eccentric characters that add colour and flavour to any neighbourhood. In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters certainly fell into that category.

Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of Abraham Terwilliger. They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town. Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, having arrived from New York State in about the year 1816. The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in and around town for hosting free séances at their father’s home. Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Peddlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”

In the early 1840s, the Terwilliger sisters followed the teachings of the Second Adventists, who believed that Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom. William Miller, an American evangelist, preached that the world would end in 1842 or 1843. Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on the date of the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch, hoping to fly to heaven. She fell 15 feet, resulting in a broken leg. The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.


An artist’s rendition of Sarah Terwilliger flying from the porch.  It comes from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant, published in Toronto in 1898 by William Briggs.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about the Terwilliger sisters. While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Union Cemetery. I was determined to find out more about her, in order to shed some light on her story. I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history. After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the south Presbyterian section, just to the right of one of the old access roads. The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by a graceful scrolling to the shoulders. A floral wreath with clasping hands inside adorns the upper part of the memorial. A few flowers grace the side of the stone. The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.” All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.” This had me thinking: why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone? Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery. It was back to the archives.

Clara Terry2

Erected by Clara Terry. Photo by Melissa Cole.

Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869. Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer, of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old. Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet. They have a six-month-old boy named Frederick. Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents Abraham and Alma Terwilliger. Could a marriage break-up be the reason Clarissa was adamant that her stone show that she was the one who erected it? Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know. We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative. The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.

Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is in Union Cemetery, records show Clarissa is not buried there. No birth or death dates are listed on the stone. It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location. She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.

Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story. It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the sisters Terwilliger are still associated with this eccentric act. I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of the town’s eccentrics. Her gravestone is a reminder that she did not conform to society’s expectations and did things her own way. Her story is also a reminder to me that, although I may travel the globe, some of the most remarkable treasures are in my own backyard. As the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”: a suggestion from Proust that there are many discoveries waiting in my own neighbourhood.


Heinrich Engelhardt, The Beauties of Nature Combined With Art, (Montreal: Lovell, 1872)

Oshawa Museum, Union Cemetery and Terwilliger family documents

Samuel Pedlar papers, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum


Laura photoLaura Suchan is the author of Memento Mori: Classifying Nineteenth-Century Ontario Gravestones. She enjoys sunny afternoons spent in old graveyards. In her professional life, she is the Executive Director of the Oshawa  Museum, where she has been balancing budgets and writing business plans for over 25 years.

She is a member of the Association of Gravestone Studies, the Abandoned Cemetery Committee for Clarington, Ontario, and is President of the Trent University Alumni Association for Oshawa/Durham.  Laura enjoys writing, yoga, traveling, and spending time with her two sons. Connect with her at or on Facebook at Early Gravemarkers


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: A Tale of 25,000 Tales


Tour photos of Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery by M. Parfitt.

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.

10577091_10152290892596452_545556492729661978_nWould 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.

11754412_10153072363286452_729999009092471518_oI 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.

11205528_10153030609241452_7402202906627997120_nThe 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.

11052460_10152884661446452_7177891324845766836_nMost 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.

11665418_10153030609816452_1123057498260095013_nThe 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.



Photo by Lori Mattas.

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.





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 in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

The Collected Facebook Cemetery Group Interviews

The Miller monument at Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma, California. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

The Miller monument at Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma, California. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been interviewing the Administrators and Moderators of some of Facebook’s dozens of cemetery groups.  There seems to be a group for every interest, from lovely photographs to history to cemetery wildlife.

In case you missed any in the series, here are links to each of them:

My introduction to the series

Association of Graveyard Rabbits


Cemetery Inscriptions, Epitaphs, and Symbols

Cemetery Oddities

Cemetery Scavenger Hunt

Dark & Dreamy Cemeteries

Graves of the Rich and Famous


Gravestones & Taphophilia

Graveyard Detectives

The Cemetery Club

Vintage Cemetery Mausoleums

Facebook Groups: The Cemetery Club

The Cemetery Club
Administrator: Minda Douglas-Powers
1706 members

Grave of Mary C. Forbes, with her footstone in place at the Marshall State Historic Park. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Grave of Mary C. Forbes, with her footstone in place at the Marshall State Historic Park. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Q: There are a lot of cemetery aficionado groups on Facebook. What sets yours apart?

A: From my experience, many of the cemetery groups on Facebook are all about the photos. So is The Cemetery Club’s group — it only makes sense — but the most important aspect of our group is the community.

When I started the group years ago, it was to network with fellow taphophiles. I was working on my book Cemetery Walk and wanted a way to connect with a variety of people who all had some sort of interest in cemeteries. Eventually the group, which I consider a partner to my website, took on a life of its own. We now have more than 1700 members from all around the world who share photos, ask each other questions, give advice, and promote a general sense of camaraderie. It’s a really great community and I certainly can take very little credit for that.

I would like to thank everyone who has been with me since the very beginning: TC, Iris, John, Tracy, Matt, Jason, Amy, Doug, and so many more (you know who you are!). On the days when I get overwhelmed by life, work, my many projects, and wonder if all the effort is worth it… I see a post in the group that reminds how passionate my friends are about gravestones and history. It reminds me that I’m not the only one who loves gravestones and everything they (literally) stand for. It may still seem an odd hobby or passion to some — though not nearly as many think it’s as weird as they used to — but it means a whole lot to us.

Q: Do you have a policy about what is appropriate to post?

A: My policy is pretty basic: Be kind, considerate of others, and don’t be a blatant salesperson. I have no problem with people promoting the work they do, a book they’ve written, etc., but anything spammy won’t last long. Obviously the phony FB profiles who are trying to sell shoes get the boot really fast. Others who over-promote themselves, yet don’t contribute to the group in any other way, don’t last very long either.

Q: How old is your group?

A: I think it dates back to 2005 or 2004. I wasn’t able to find a start date on Facebook.

Q: Is your group open to new members?

A: Yes! The group is always open to new members. We’ve been growing in leaps and bounds. It seemed like it took forever for us to hit 1,000. That was okay, since we had quality posts. In the last nine months or so, it’s really taken off. As far as criteria, you just have to be a real person and not just a fake spam profile. All are welcome. The more people we can get interested in our cemeteries and history, the better.

Q: Are you a member of any other cemetery groups?

A: I am a member of a number of cemetery groups. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to contribute to any of them. It’s tough enough to keep up with my own! Besides, you’ll find the same taphophiles are members of a bunch of these groups. I do my best to keep my social media life simplified. I do social media during my day job, too, so while I may not always be out there on my own channels, I’m usually networking in some way with someone.

Facebook Groups: Cemetery Scavenger Hunt

Cemetery Scavenger Hunt
Administrator: Dorothy Loney
147 members

St. John's Cemetery, San Mateo, California. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

St. John’s Cemetery, San Mateo, California. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Mission Statement: Each Sunday morning, Dorothy posts the Weekly Theme. Members of the group then post as many cemetery photos as they can find fit the theme. Members are encouraged to go out to cemeteries to look for the week’s theme, search the internet, or draw from their own photo collections as long as the photos they post have to do with the theme and are from a cemetery.

Q: There are a lot of cemetery aficionado groups on Facebook. What sets yours apart?

A: The scavenger group started because a lot of members of the Cemetery Oddities group wanted to do weekly themes. Carole Lynn and I thought people might think they could only post what the theme was — we didn’t want to change anything about Cemetery Oddities. That group is so much fun the way it is!

Q: Do you have a policy about what is appropriate to post?

A: Since my group is like a game, we do have rules you have to follow to play along.
We require that you only post something that fits the weekly theme, but we’ll allow questions and requests for help with cemetery stuff. Anything goes, so long as it’s not upsetting other members. No selling of any kind, though.

Q: Are you a member of any other cemetery groups?

A: I am a member of quite a few groups, but I usually only post in the ones that I help to run. It gets to be too much otherwise. I will like and comment on other groups’ posts, though.