My daughter wants to grow up to be a pirate. When I planned our annual August vacation to visit my parents in Michigan, my mom suggested we make a road trip into Canada to see The Pirates of Penzance at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.
Of course, I promptly jumped on the internet to check if Stratford had a cemetery worth visiting.
Avondale Cemetery is lovely. (It will be the Cemetery of the Week tomorrow.) The cemetery rises from the road to a high flat spot that overlooks a cornfield which seemed to stretch off into space. While my dad waited in the air-conditioned Buick and my daughter sat in the grass under an old pine tree to read a book about befriending unicorns, I poked around with my camera, trying to sum the place up in one perfect image.
The photo above was the last one I took before we had to run back into town to pick my mother up from her visit to the theater museum. I was drawn to this headstone because of its shape. Books aren’t rare in graveyards, but they are uncommon. I don’t remember ever seeing one standing up like this one. I like the crease on its spine and the grooves that indicate the pages. I like its size and its heft, its permanence.
I especially like that Evelyn survived Harold for 32 years, but she chose to be reunited with him in the end. I wondered what stories the real book of their love would tell.
Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery
aka Yosemite Cemetery
Yosemite Village, Yosemite National Park, California 95389
Telephone: (209) 372-0200 Founded: 1870ish Size: ¼ acre Number of interments: Approximately 50 Open: every day
Even armed with the Guide to the Yosemite Cemetery, it’s not easy to find the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery. When I visited, its sign was hidden between parked cars, behind the grocery story and employee housing.
Shadowed by trees and surrounded by a low split-rail fence, most of the graves in the Pioneer Cemetery are marked with plain wooden signboards, painted Park Service brown. Some grave monuments are carved from Yosemite granite.
The earliest grave marker in the cemetery records “A Boy.” Jack Leidig, an old-timer who grew up in the Valley, remembered him as the first person to be buried in the graveyard in 1870. The guidebook theorizes that this area was chosen for a cemetery because the natives had already used it as a burial ground. The Miwoks and Paiutes did not mark their graves, but Native American remains have been uncovered over the years during construction projects in the Valley.
Galen Clark, the first guardian of Yosemite in 1866, selected the granite boulder for his tombstone and planted six trees to shade his grave. Clark lived for 20 years after he’d planned his grave. Four of his trees still survive.
An enormous slab of local granite commemorates the Hutchings family. “Daughter of Yosemite” Gertrude (Cosie) Hutchings Mills was born in the Valley and lived there on and off through her 89 years. She served as postmaster of Yosemite Valley, then as schoolteacher in the village of Wawona, just outside the park’s boundary. When she married, she left Yosemite for 42 years, but after she was widowed in 1941, she returned every summer to work in Yosemite Valley, staying in a tent in Tuolumne Meadows.
Effie’s wooden grave marker
A weathered board marks the grave of Effie Maud Crippen, who died August 31, 1881, “age 14 yrs, 7 mos, 22 days.” “She faltered by the wayside and the angels took her home,” it says. According to the guidebook, Effie moved to Yosemite with her family in 1877. She loved the valley and explored it on horseback, sketching it and describing it in her poetry. A photograph from the year before she died shows her as a serious girl with a thick dark braid, wearing a shin-length skirt and low button-boots. Although hard to imagine, humans had already begun to litter Yosemite by August 1881. Wading in Mirror Lake, Effie stepped on a broken bottle and severed an artery in her foot. The 14-year-old bled to death.
Not far away from Effie’s grave stands a marble marker “In Memory of Albert May, native of Ohio,” who also died in 1881. On his stone, two manly hands clasp, signifying friendship. Marble doesn’t occur inside the boundaries of Yosemite; the Sierra Nevada Mountains are granite. This stone must have been brought in by mule train to mark May’s grave, hinting at the high regard his friend A. G. Black, who erected the stone, must have held for him. May worked for Black as a carpenter and caretaker at Black’s New Sentinel Hotel. Rocks the size of grapefruit ringed the grave itself when I visited.
John Anderson’s monument
John C. Anderson’s marker declares that he “was killed by a horse on the 5th of July 1867.” “Beloved by all,” it says. On his stone, a willow bends under the weight of its own branches like a person burdened by grief. The faded inscription had sunk into the ground.Luckily, the guidebook recorded it:
“Be ye also ready for ye know
not the hour the Son of Man cometh
Dearest Brother, tho had left us,
Here thy loss, we deeply feel.”
When gold fever struck him in 1856, John C. Anderson traveled from Illinois to stake a claim in Yosemite Valley. The gold claim didn’t pan out as richly as the hotel he and three other prospectors built for travelers to Yosemite. He served as the hotel’s coachman on the day he died.
Contradicting the date on the stone, the Mariposa Gazette reported that Anderson had been kicked by a horse and died almost instantly on July 13, 1867. In fact, the authors of the guidebook found many errors in the birth and death dates on the gravestones. Either this was a function of the delay in getting the news to Mariposa to be published or, as in Anderson’s case, the extreme time required to import the marble to mark his grave.
Originally, Anderson had been buried at the foot of the Four-Mile Trail, before being exhumed and moved to the Pioneer Cemetery. Tradition relates that his friends thrust his green locust-wood switch into the ground to mark his first grave. All locust trees in the valley supposedly descend from that green grave marker. I liked the romance of the story, even if the locusts are invasive. Ansel Adams made a beautiful photograph of them shrouded in snow.
In the old days, people had been buried all over the park, where they fell or near places they’d loved. At some point, all the bodies that could be located were gathered together into the graveyard.
Here, in this quiet, tucked-away corner in one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country — averaging three million visitors annually — these permanent residents have become part of the living history forever. Even if their lives had been brief and their deaths agonizing or sad, their spirits had been woven into the beauty of the valley.
Note: A Guide to the Yosemite Cemetery is available to borrow or purchase at the Valley Visitor Center. My review is here.
Yosemite has a second graveyard tucked away in Wawona. Ask at the Wawona Visitor Center for its location.
Walking tour of the Pioneer Cemetery, mirroring the text of the guidebook.
San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the current home of 37 exquisite tomb sculptures on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. I had the joy of visiting them recently.
The image above shows my favorite of the mourning sculptures, but it implies that the figures are large, perhaps even life-size. In reality, they stand about 16 inches high. At first I thought this diminished their power, but on closer examination, that was certainly not the case.
The figures, all men, display every nuance of grief, from throwing their heads back in pain to drying their eyes on their cloaks. Some still wear the enamel which once adorned them all, but most have lost their paint. The alabaster retains — in crisp relief — every curl of hair, every fold of fabric, every vein that crawls the back of a miniature hand. Many of the figures carry books, sometimes turning to them for solace, other times bearing them as burdens. The books, like the men, vary in many wonderful details.
The figures come from the tomb of the second Duke of Burgundy, one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages. His domain stretched from Dijon in central France into Luxembourg, Belgium, and even the Netherlands. He was also a patron of the arts, drawing sculptors, writers, musicians, and other artists to his court.
Before John died in 1419, he commissioned a tomb for himself and his wife to stand in the family’s monastic charterhouse outside of Dijon. Life-sized effigies of John and Margaret rested on a slab of black marble. Below that slab stood an ornate Gothic arcade through which the mourning figures marched in procession. They were carved between 1443 and 1456 or 1457.
While echoing the relief carvings of mourning figures on classical sarcophagi, these figures were unusual because of their three-dimensionality. They mourned John through the centuries until the tomb was dismantled during the French Revolution. Eventually the tomb was moved to the former ducal palace, now the Fine Arts Museum of Dijon.
While that museum undergoes renovation, the Mourners are touring the US. After the exhibition closes in San Francisco, it travels to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and then to Paris, before returning home.
You really should see the Mourners in person, but if that’s out of the question, the exhibition guide contains photos of each figure from several angles so you the sense of moving around them. Once they return to Dijon, you will no longer be able to get so close or see them as well as you can now.
I grew up on a farm between my grandmother’s house and the graveyard, which is named Bendle after its first caretaker. The names on the gravestones were familiar: Nichols, Carpenter, and Calkins were the names of roads in the area. I was an adult before I understood that the roads were named for tracks which originally led to the first farms in the area, settled by families that cleared the land and built old red barns that still stood. Like all children, I thought that Clayton Township has always existed, instead of having been organized as late as 1846.
The Lyons family, whose descendants still live out on Nichols Road, donated an acre of land to the fledgling community to serve as burial ground. Bendle Cemetery’s first occupant was one of Seth Hathaway’s children around 1838. That monument, if ever there was one, has vanished. The oldest existing tombstone remembers Albert Ottaway, less than a year old when he died in 1844.
That initial acre fascinated me when I first began to pay attention to graveyards. There I saw my first lamb on a child’s grave. Among the oldest monuments were a six-foot tree trunk with limbs lopped off dedicated to the Youell family and a “white bronze” metal obelisk for the Carpenters.
White bronze monuments are actually made of zinc. They were sold via a mail order catalog. Families ordered various plates, ornamented with symbols ranging from human figures to fraternal organization badges to the flaming urn above, to be assembled at the graveyard. These monuments can be identified by their lovely pale bluish gray color and the fact that they’re hollow. You can hear the difference when you tap one gently.
All the white bronze cemetery monuments in the U.S. were made by Monumental Bronze Company, which operated a subsidiary in Detroit from 1881-1885. (The Carpenters were buried in 1891, 1899, and 1902, so it’s unlikely the monument above was made in Detroit.) Zinc never really caught on, since people often thought it looked cheap compared to stone. The white bronze monument business lasted only 40 years, closing down in 1914. Strangely enough, these “cheap” monuments survive, just as crisp and beautiful as the day they were assembled.
The history of leaving flowers for the dead stretches back beyond memory. These are some of my favorites: delicately painted ceramic flowers brightening the plain wooden cross on a grave in Paris. The French call them “immortelles.”
The cemetery is pocket-sized Cimetière St-Vincent, down the hill from Sacre Coeur on Montmartre. The little graveyard doesn’t have a lot of famous names inside. Painter Maurice Utrillo is perhaps the best known. What it lacks in star power, St. Vincent more than makes up for in its lovely artwork. There are a number of beautiful sculptures, but what drew me were the more intimate details.
Roses signify love and often adorned the gravestones of Victorian-age women. In Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister says that Christian mythology holds that the rose has no thorns in Paradise. Its beauty and fragrance are meant to remind us what Heaven will be like.
The purple flowers on this grave are more difficult to identify. I suspect they’re violets, which are shy, shade-loving flowers with a sweet fragrance. In the language of flowers, violets symbolized modesty and faithfulness.
Here’s a modern version of immortelles, but their yellow-hearted violets look like primroses to me.
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