Tag Archives: angels

Cemetery of the Week #162: Oakland Cemetery

Black Angel damage

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa 52245
Founded: 1843
Size: 40 acres
Number of interments: at least 13500

In February 1843, the Iowa territorial legislature deeded one square block of land to the people of Iowa City for a public cemetery. Iowa itself didn’t attain statehood until December 28, 1846.

Since that initial city block, the cemetery has grown to forty acres. Unlike most modern cemeteries, which rely on the dividends from their perpetual care fund to pay for maintenance, Oakland Cemetery is a non-perpetual care cemetery, supported by city taxes. It’s overseen by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Among the people buried beneath the oak trees are Robert E. Lucas, first governor of the Iowa territory, who served from 1838-1841; Samuel J. Kirkwood, Iowa’s two-time governor who served during the Civil War before going on to become a US senator, secretary of the interior, and then minister to Spain; several presidents of the Univerity of Iowa; and Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentine-born artist and printmaker.

Oakland Cemetery is most widely known for the supposedly cursed eight-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze angel standing over the Feldevert grave.

Born in 1836, Teresa Dolezal worked as a physician in Bohemia. After she immigrated to Iowa City with her son Eddie, she wasn’t allowed to work as a doctor, so she became a midwife.

In 1891, meningitis (an infection of the membrane around the brain) killed 18-year-old Eddie. Teresa buried him in Oakland Cemetery. To mark his grave, she chose a tree stump monument, to symbolize life cut off in its prime.

Teresa moved to Oregon and married Nicholas Feldevert. When he died in 1911, she returned to Iowa City so she could bury her husband’s ashes near her son. Teresa purchased a larger plot in Oakland Cemetery, buried her husband’s ashes there, then had her son’s remains transferred to it. Eddie’s tree stump monument was also moved to the new plot.

Teresa hired Mario Korbel, a Bohemian artist in Chicago, to mark their graves. His remarkable bronze angel arrived via the railroad in November 1912.

Twelve years later, Teresa succumbed to cancer in November 1924. Her ashes were buried in the family plot.

The bronze angel began to oxidize. Instead of taking on a green patina, as one might expect, the angel turned black. At that point, urban legends grew up around the angel.

Some say the angel was struck by lightning the night after Teresa’s funeral. Some say Teresa had vowed to remain faithful to her husband and the angel’s color revealed her infidelity. Others claim the blackened angel was evidence that Teresa had been a witch.

Urban legends swirl surround the Black Angel: if you kiss it, you could be struck dead. Pregnant women had to avoid its shadow or risk miscarriage. Only if a virgin was ever kissed in front of the statue could the curse be broken.

It’s harder to test that theory these days. Vandals have broken the angel’s fingers, so cemetery security watches visitors closely.

To be honest, the weather in Iowa is hard on bronze angels. In Council Bluffs, almost 250 miles away, a second black angel marks the grave of Ruth Ann Dodge, spiritualist wife of General Grenville M. Dodge, a Civil War veteran who became the chief engineer of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Black Angel 2

Vintage postcard from the author’s collection.


That angel, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, was created as a fountain, spilling the water of life from a basin in her hand. The figure was inspired by a dream Ruth had: a woman in a shining white gown appeared to her three times, urging her to drink from the vessel she carried. During the third time, Ruth drank — and she died a few days later. She was buried in Fairview Cemetery in 1916.

Oakland Cemetery is included in 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.

Useful links:
Oakland Cemetery’s homepage: https://www.icgov.org/city-government/departments-and-divisions/oakland-cemetery

Prairie Ghosts report on the Black Angels

A more sensational report on the legends, which some pretty photos of the cemetery

A paranormal team’s investigation in the Press-Citizen

Findagrave listing for Ruth Ann Dodge


Cemetery of the Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park

The Graves family monument, Cypress Lawn

Cypress Lawn Memorial Park
1370 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014-3239
Telephone: 650-550-8810
Email: info@cypresslawn.com
Founded: 1892
Size: 200 acres
Number of interments: Approximately 200,000
Open: Every day, 8:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. or until dusk, whichever is later

Of the 17 graveyards just south of San Francisco in Colma, California, Cypress Lawn Memorial Park is by far the most welcoming to visitors. In addition to selling guidebooks on their website, the cemetery is really lovely.

The original side lies east of El Camino Real, but the newer western side has charms of its own, including huge carpet flowerbeds and a public mausoleum with 36,000 square feet of stained glass ceiling. In fact, Cypress Lawn has more stained glass in one place than anywhere else in the U.S.

Another highlight of the western side is the Laurel Hill Pioneer Monument. Until the 1940s, San Francisco’s Laurel Hill Cemetery stood where the Kaiser Permanente Hospital is now. A series of court cases and public referendums eventually chased cemeteries out of the city. Families were given the option to move their loved ones, but Laurel Hill tended to be the last refuge of single men. 35,000 people with no family were collected up, labeled if there was any way to identify their bones, placed in separate boxes, and interred in a concrete mausoleum beneath the pioneer mound. Among those sharing the mass grave are Andrew Hallidie, father of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars; anti-slavery Senator David Broderick, victim of the last historic duel in the U.S.; and Phineas Gage, who entered psychology textbooks because he survived having an iron rod jammed through his skull, albeit as a changed man. His experience in 1848 led to the study of the biological basis of human behavior. His head went to the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University, according to local historian Michael Svanevik.

Cypress Lawn is said to have the highest concentration of historic Californians of any cemetery in the state. Among those with swank monuments are Senator George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst) and his wife Phoebe Apperson Hearst, founder of the kindergarten movement; Lillie Hitchcock Coit, namesake of Coit Tower on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill; Lefty O’Doul, who traveled to Japan 30 times to help them develop baseball; and many more.

How did this historic place come about? Legend has it that in the 1890s, San Francisco financier Hamden Noble watched a funeral at Laurel Hill Cemetery. When workmen shoveled the stony soil and large rocks down into the grave, the coffin split open, to the horror of all present. Noble was inspired to treat the dead better.

He traveled to the fabled cemeteries of the East Coast: Cambridge’s Mount Auburn, the first garden cemetery in the U.S.; Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill (for whom San Francisco’s was named); and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood. Each of those graveyards was built on the edge of town where there seemed to be plenty of room to expand. They were primarily resting places for the wealthy, but also served as arboretums full of flowers and trees and as art museums full of graceful statuary and beautiful revival-style mausoleums. People came to visit these graveyards on the weekends, picnicking on the grounds, feeding the birds, hiking, courting, and generally enjoying a sense of their mortality amongst exquisitely tamed nature. Noble contrasted that to San Francisco’s cemeteries, where the monuments had been damaged by earthquakes and never repaired, where the un-irrigated grass was green only in springtime, where trees struggled to survive in the constant wind off the ocean.

Vista in Cypress Lawn

Noble purchased 47 acres of fertile farmland south of San Francisco from the San Francisco diocese for his cemetery. Under the influence of John McLaren, the legendary superintendent of Golden Gate Park, Noble strove for “peaceful vistas and dynamic harmony of plantings,” according to California historian Kevin Starr.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Cypress Lawn had more trees and shrubs than any public park in the United States. To advertise this, Noble used to purchase space on the city’s streetcars to keep potential visitors informed of what was blossoming in the cemetery. The blooming of the Australian redbud eucalyptus that once lined the walkways was celebrated in San Francisco much like the cherry trees are in Japan.

Noble was also responsible for importing the brown-winged turbit pigeon to California. He’d seen the birds at Mount Auburn and wanted some to grace his cemetery. Every morning at 9 a.m., Noble would spell out the cemetery’s name in birdseed so the streetcar would get a show when it passed. The original flock swelled to thousands by the time Noble died in 1929 and the expensive daily feedings ceased.

My favorite part of a trip to Cypress Lawn is a walk amidst the monuments. Cypress Lawn has quite a collection of angels, ranging from the angel placing the plumed pen on Thomas O. Larkin’s grave to the delicate stained glass windows inside the mausoleums to the copy of William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief (Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life) that marks the grave of Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin Jenny Roosevelt Poole. There’s also a find assemblage of muses, female figures who mourn eternally over graves but lack angels’ wings. One of my particular favorites is a marble lady dropping daisies on the Ruffino grave. Another sculpture I’m very fond of is the Madonna struggling with her squirming babe. I’m very certain that your exploration of Cypress Lawn will yield favorites of your own.

One of my favorite cemetery ladies

Useful links:
Events at Cypress Lawn

Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation

Bella Morte feature on Cypress Lawn

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Cypress Lawn:

Cypress Lawn: Guardian of California’s Heritage

Pillars of the Past: At Rest at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park

City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma

Weekly Photo Challenge: Journey

The Larkin monument at Cypress Lawn

Thomas O. Larkin served as the only United States consul to Mexican province of Alta California during the 1840s.  He was captured during California’s transition to the United States. After annexation, he became a “merchant prince” in California, speculating in land from the Mexican ranchos.  He co-founded the city of Benicia, which served briefly as the California state capitol.  At one point, he was the richest man in America.

After his death in 1858, Larkin was buried in San Francisco’s beautiful and historic Laurel Hill Cemetery.   Decades later, his grave was suitably marked with an angel carved by German-born artist Rupert Schmid.  The down-gazing angel is placing a feathered pen on the grave.  Larkin had been one of the signers of the Californian constitution.

At the dawn of the 20th century, San Francisco politicians banned burials inside the city limits.  Laurel Hill Cemetery fought developers who eyed its land, but in 1940 the cemetery was demolished and its residents moved to Colma.  Larkin, and his angel, were transfered to Cypress Lawn Cemetery, where they remain to this day.

Cemetery of the Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California

Weekly Photo Challenge: Peaceful

Angel in Highgate

Twenty years ago this month, I went to Europe for the first time.  I ended up in Highgate Cemetery by accident, after finding John Gay’s Victorian Valhalla in the bookshop in Victoria Station.  The sky was threatening and gray.  The wind was chilly and damp.  Still, primroses bloomed in the hollows under the trees.  Angels stood everywhere, luminous.

In my mind, the excessively feminine winged guardians have more kinship with the fairy godmothers of my childhood than with the stern warriors of the Bible.  Something about their serenity, their total devotion, seems too intensely focused to survive the real world.  Silhouetted against the white January sky, standing their posts come rain or snow, the angels of Highgate inspired me to photograph as many of their kindred as I could before neglect destroyed them.  Since then, I’ve photographed angels in graveyards around the world.

Cemetery of the Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England

Weekly Photo Challenge: Comfort

St. John's Cemetery, San Mateo

My daughter asked me yesterday, “Why do you like cemeteries so much?”

“Because I find them comforting” is what I should have said.  When I go to a graveyard, the world falls away.  Worries fade.  I understand that all things pass away, even stone.  Even memory.  What is important is how we treat each other now.  That we are kind.  That we are as generous as possible.  That we care for each other and take care of one another, without being asked, for no other reason than because we want to do what’s right.  Life is short and death is long and even graveyards crumble to dust — but love can make angels of us all, if we let it.