I’ve been curious how many of the old Spanish missions still have their original graveyards. This book provided some guidance through its photographs (because, let’s face it, old graves are picturesque), but for the most part, the graveyards didn’t rate much mention in the text. My search will have to continue.
That said, the photographs in this book are really lovely. They capture the interiors of the old churches and the details of their decorations. Sunlight paints the rooms. Outside, the skies are always the luminous Californian blue. Flowers nod and trees drowse and things seem very peaceful. Where appropriate, the museums or recreated cells of the padres are staged as carefully as a photo shoot. This book, whether a spur to exploring California’s Spanish — and Mexican — history or as a souvenir after such a trip, is beautiful to page through.
It falls down in the text, unfortunately, The same details are repeated over and over: the fathers select the mission site. The natives help build a church. It floods. There’s an earthquake or a fire. The soldiers molest the natives. There’s an uprising. Spain hands the missions over to Mexico, who doesn’t want the bother. The missions are sold, then mistreated, then almost destroyed. Rinse, repeat. There’s really little point in reading the whole book cover to cover, as I did, because the story is the same every time.
I would have liked to know more about the native tribes and what they lost. I would have liked to know more about daily life in the missions. I would have liked to know more about those mission churchyards and who is buried there. Who marked their graves and why? How many forgotten Native Americans lie there and what’s been done to perpetuate their memory?
There’s still room for a definitive guide.
I bought my copy at one of the bookstores in San Francisco — probably Green Apple — but if you’re out of town, it’s also available on Amazon.
My dear friend Jeff is on a continuing mission to travel to all the ends of the earth. He returned from Scotland and sent me these photos from the Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. With his permission, I share them with you.
The grave of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a dog that stood watch over his owner after the man’s death. People bring the dog sticks.
Memento Mori: hand with bell, hourglass, crossed coffins, spade, mummified face, and crossbones.
The churchyard has watchtowers left over from the days of Burke and Hare. Guards would stand watch over the graveyard at night to foil grave robbers, who broke into new graves to steal corpses for dissection at Edinburgh’s Medical School.
You can see Jeff’s photos of his trip to Cuba earlier this year here.
See his photos of the graveyards of Croatia and Bosnia here.
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.
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
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 www.laurasuchan.com or on Facebook at Early Gravemarkers https://www.facebook.com/EarlyGravemarkers/.
About 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.
All photos of Sandy Mount United Methodist Church provided by Sharon Pajka.
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.
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.
Photos of Mount Union Cemetery by Frank E. Bittinger
by Frank E. Bittinger
On our way home from spending a long weekend at Virginia Beach, my best friend Michele brought up the idea to stop at the cemetery to visit her mother and father’s grave. Many members of her family were buried in Slanesville, West Virginia. I’d never been there before. Michelle wanted to show me the really old, original cemetery back in the woods. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it before the sun started to go down.
Mount Union Christian Church was the standard simple white-sided building, its belfry a cupola housing a single bell. The church was surrounded by the final resting places of its parishioners.
After Michele showed me her parents’ grave, we walked around a bit. Since it had been Fourth of July only a couple weeks before, there were little flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. We stopped to read the inscriptions on their stones. It was twilight, so we could still see well enough. Stars blinked into existence as the sky dimmed.
Other stones attracted our attention as well. Many people had lived long lives, others were cut down in their prime, but the saddest ones were the graves of the children. One pair of tiny tombstones in particular captured my eye. Sharing the same surname, no first names revealed: I figured they had to be siblings. The boy had been born in 1950 and died in 1956. Little sister didn’t live to see her fourth birthday—born in 1956, she followed her big brother to the grave in 1960. With only the years of birth and death listed, I wondered if big brother had gotten to meet his little sister, or if he passed beyond the veil before her birth. I’d like to think they met in the afterlife.
I couldn’t imagine the parents’ grief: losing not one but two of their children so young. Of course, I’ll never know if these were the only children the couple had, but either way it had to be devastating to lose two children so close together.
My skin erupted in goosebumps. The chill I felt didn’t come from the cool breeze. It came from the soft whisper: “What about me?” Very faint. Almost an afterthought hanging in the evening air.
It came again, slightly louder, and I was sure I’d heard it. Looking around, I made certain it was still just Michele and me there in the flesh.
Apparently, someone felt left out.
Michele knows there are occasions when I can see or hear something others cannot, so I felt comfortable telling her about hearing the man’s whisper. She looked around and asked if I could see him. I could only hear a faint voice.
The voice could have easily belonged to any of the cemetery’s residents. Even though it wasn’t a huge cemetery, there were quite a number of graves. It could also have been a spirit attached to the land or one passing through.
As we walked around looking at the graves, I heard it several more times. Plaintive not pleading, if that makes sense; I felt like he was in mourning because he felt forgotten, lonely.
A light breeze stirred the grass and leaves.
“What about me?”
Michele said maybe he didn’t have any family or maybe no one had ever come to visit him. She asked if I thought I could figure out who he was, which grave was his. I’d never tried to do anything like that before, but I was willing to try.
Wandering through the cemetery in the twilight was an experience. I’d traipsed through a cemetery in the rain on a Saturday afternoon, during a photo shoot to promote my novels, but this was different. Not eerie or creepy. More like somber, sad because here was this man asking not to be forgotten.
“What about me?”
I can’t really explain how I felt, but I was led to this man’s grave. I don’t want to say it felt like I was playing a game of “Hot or Cold,” but that is essentially what it was. The feeling of being right intensified when I was getting closer to him and diminished if I took a wrong turn or walked too far away.
We found him in the most unlikely place. A pine tree stood in the cemetery, one with low-hanging limbs. I just felt the need to look around the tree. I used my foot to scrape brown needles and leaves around. Lo and behold, there sure as hell was a flat gravestone under there. Not just any grave—and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—but the grave of a military man. Using my lighter to see by, I knelt down and wiped until his name was revealed.
I knew I’d found the final resting place of the man who’d been whispering to me. Here was the only military grave in the cemetery that didn’t have a little American flag on it.
What I found unusual was this man had a footstone for his military service but no headstone at the top of his grave. I wondered if that had been an oversight. Maybe he shared a headstone with someone else and I just couldn’t see it. But it was very strange for his footstone to be at the base of this pine tree, under the branches and pine needles. Perhaps the tree just grew there over time, its limbs overshadowing this flat, rectangular footstone set in the ground, shielding it from easy view.
If Michele hadn’t believed me before, she sure did now. She got it as soon as she read the inscription on the stone.
“I think he thinks he’s forgotten because no one gave him a flag,” she said. “And look how his marker looks like it’s sunk into the ground.” It was true: the gentleman’s footstone was a little below the surface. Grass grew up and over the sides. “So easy to get covered over,” Michele said as she leaned over to take a closer look.
“I think so. Either the flag or because he doesn’t have a headstone.” I hoped he knew we were talking about him. I said, “You are not forgotten, so don’t think you are. Thank you for your service.”
I felt like he heard me and knew Michele and I appreciated him.
Never having been to this churchyard before, it would take a lot of coincidences for me to stumble upon a grave hidden beneath the limbs of a pine tree and for that grave to be that of a military man. I believe in coincidences, but this didn’t have anything to do with coincidence. I truly feel this lonely spirit — feeling forgotten, especially after the Fourth of July — led me to his final resting place.
I walked away feeling like I’d done something really good for him. I hoped he wouldn’t feel lonely or forgotten any longer.
Two years later, I asked Michele if she would be willing to take me back to the cemetery. She said yes, she wanted to place some fall decorations on her mother and father’s grave. So we drove down on a nice sunny Sunday. I wanted to visit the grave of the soldier who had whispered to me. Someone had trimmed the lower limbs on the pine tree; I was pleased to see they no longer draped down over and obscured the footstone of the soldier. Once again, I knelt down and wiped away pine needles. “I told you, you’re not forgotten.”
I hope to be able to visit him again, hopefully before another two years have passed. Michele said we should make the commitment to drive the hour-plus at least twice a year together.
Over the centuries, Frank Bittinger has experienced many existences. In this incarnation, Mr. Bittinger is a vegan who lives and writes in Western Maryland, sharing his home with a menagerie of rescued animals, several alternate personalities, and the occasional ghost. One of his favorite pastimes is taking walks in old cemeteries in the evening.
Frank’s books include the Scarabae Saga (Into the Mirror Black, Angels of the Seventh Dawn, Angels of the Mourning Light, and Shadows Amongst the Moonlight), As Dark As I: Evangelium Scarabae Volume I (coming in Spring 2016), and These Ghosts of Mine (a nonfiction collection coming in 2016). He’s also written What’s It All About? Alfy!, a poetry collection to benefit the rescued animals of Jollity Farm in Cornwall, UK.
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.
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