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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cemetery Walk

The founders of a new colony. . .have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery... - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Since ancient times we have honored the dead by constructing tombs, graveyards, and church cemeteries. Egyptian pharaohs built massive pyramids. In the middle ages and beyond, kings and nobles were laid to rest under the floors of majestic cathedrals. European immigrants to the new world brought with them the custom of burying their dead in churchyards, in consecrated ground.

On a recent visit to see family in northern Minnesota, I traveled with my aunt to an old family cemetery and church. Built by Norwegian immigrants in the late 1800's, the Lutheran church had been empty for many years. In March of this year it re-opened. On the day we visited, the side door stood open in anticipation of more workers arriving to paint the floor.

Last October in Paris I'd visited the awesome St. Eustache Cathedral built in the 16th century. There in this grand cathedral, at least two of my paternal ancestors were baptized before migrating to Quebec.

For all its simplicity, the 19th century Rindal Lutheran Church in rural northern Minnesota was no less awesome. Simpler, but still amazing and pure. As I stood in each building, I absorbed the atmosphere surrounding me. The silent coolness seemed to hold memories of those who had once worshiped there.

On this particular August day, the sun radiated against an ever changing sky. A cooling breeze rustled fragrant pine trees and dried cut grass.

As my aunt and I walked the grounds of this rural cemetery, we read the tombstones. She told me of those she knew who rested there. Some stones told their own story. A beloved infant who died in his first year. An adult son buried with his parents. Soldiers killed in World War II, or who died after coming home. We saw many military graves in the cemetery, each one marked with a Veteran's star. As in other cemeteries, small flags are no doubt placed there on National holidays.

My love of history and family fuels my interest in genealogy. Genealogists can learn much from old cemeteries.

A while ago I discovered an amazing site called Find A Grave. On this free site, one can search for or post burial sites of relatives. Pictures and obituaries can be shown, and pages linked to other family members. There's even an option to place flower memorials. It's a remarkable site to remember those who have gone before, and to research family history. Through it, I've found lost cousins and viewed family stones too far to visit easily. Our 21st century technology comes to the graveyard.

So much can be learned about history by studying one's own genealogy, and by visiting ancient cathedrals, or old family church yards. Give it a try.

Debra K. Maher
Stringing Beads

My question: On what site can you search for over 66 million graves?

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Michele said...

Hi Debra,
When I was a teenager I was in a summer writing program that did a really neat exercise. We visited a civil war cemetery in North Ga. and did "grave rubbings" (laying a piece of thin paper over the top of the tomb stone and then making a copy of the stone's marking by rubbing a crayon over the paper). We spent the day there making rubbings and taking notes and later wrote some fiction based on what we knew about the period, the information on the tombstones and what we could find out. It was really neat.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great post. I enjoy walking through cemetaries and reading the graves. I've been to the cemetary where a lot of my ancestors are buried. It's interesting to look for people with a similar birthday, or who died on your birthday. You wonder about people with the same date of death, too.

Kirsten Lynn said...


So much history can be found in cemeteries. My friends think I'm strange that on vacations I like to visit old churches and cemeteries, but often old stones can list much about a person and their life.

Once, in a family cemetery (not mine but on a plantation) the stone for the son's first wife read like a poem. You could feel the heartbreak he felt at losing her so young. His second wife's stone simply had her name and dates and that she was his second wife. She died before he did, too. Got the wheels turning, didn't he love her, or was he just that much older and didn't wax poetic.

It's interesting how a name or information can inspire a story.

Thanks for the information on Find a Grave.


joan Powell said...

*** Walking through a cemetery: I have delightful memories of grave walking in Bimini Island with all the graves above the tide line, except one, where the surf had absconded with the insides of a crypt.The crypt had a tree growing right out of its middle.
Joan P. : >***

Fraoch said...

When I was teaching American history to our alternative school I taught a lesson in local history using the monuments in the local union cemeteries. It also included visits to local cemeteries for the kids to place familiar local names and the type of historical info that could be found in grave yards. There is also the issue of the great art of the stone masons as well. Graveyard monuments are an essential tool for the family historian, probably why so many volunteer groups work to record old public and family grave sites all over the world. Your post brought fun memories of my tromping thru Scottish kirkyards looking fornrelatives and doing rubbings.

Anonymous said...

This made me smile, Debra. I'm living my last week as a Swiss resident and went up to the Alps and at Grindelwald, we walked through a cemetery and saw the grave markers of all the "Bergfuhrers" - I think it's the town mayors. They were in the closest positions to the church. There were bergfuhrers dating to the late 18th century when the church was built. The gorgeous, imposing Mount Eiger was right behind it and through the trees, a view to the glacier behind. It was a magical day with good friends.

We're going to miss living here!


Patricia said...

It's funny that you posted this today because in preparation for my fourth novel I want to go to a beautiful cemetery in Oakland, California, where I've visited once before. It's a gorgeous place with very old grave sites and I can't wait to get back there. Your post was the incentive I needed to do it sooner rather than later. There's a quiet, peaceful feeling about cemeteries that I shared with my mother when she was alive. She liked to look around cemeteries as well. I can see from this blog than I'm in good company.

Kathye Thornton said...

Great post, Deb. I looked up the Find a Grave site and was very impressed. Thanks for the info.

Kathye Thornton

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I so agree with you, Debra. For quite a while I was involved with the Pioneer Cemetery group here where the gold rush of 1849 happened. It was amazing what we found on the the stones and the history we learned on how they came to be. One of my favorite stories is when the Boy Scout troup decided to clean up the old cemetery. They decided to mow up the weeds and thought removing all the headstones would make it easy...putting them back, not so easy.

One stone I used to go to visit when we lived on the other side of the mountain named the buried person as T-Bone. T-Bone was in one of my stories because he sounded like an interesting character.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I visit cemetaries and I also use county records to get a feel for the people who lived, what they did, and how they died. Bery interesting post.

Joanna Waugh said...

Back in the early 1990s I was researching my husband's family when I stumbled onto a small cemetery that clearly had been a family one. Among the mid-19th century headstones were those of husband and wife, but spread out beside them in a heartbreaking line were eleven smaller markers. Each bore the name of an infant or toddler.

Image what that couple suffered as, year by year, they brought a new life into the world only to have it snatched away.

I sat down in the grass next to them and cried.

Louisa Cornell said...

Cemeteries really do open a window on history. A cousin who was doing family history looked far and wide in a very old Alabama country cemetery for our great grandmother. Family letters and memory all pointed to this particular cemetery as her last resting place. A elderly gentleman there to cut the grass and generally clean up saw her one afternoon and asked if he could help her. When she explained her search he looked at her long and hard and said "Ma'am, I don't mean no disrespect, but you look like you're part Indian." Our great grandmother was full-blooded Creek. The gentleman led her to a far corner of the cemetery away from the rest, separated from the main cemetery. It was the area set aside for the graves of African Americans. Because my great grandmother was not white she was buried in this segregated area.

Sandy said...

What an interesting blog, Debra. You might consider me weird, but I love to visit cemetaries. They are so peaceful and quiet.

Paty Jager said...

Debra, I've had my husband stop many times while driving across our state so I could visit an old cemetery. When I visited my SIL in Texas she took me to one there. I enjoy reading the stones, thinking about who they might have been and wondering at their lives. I guess it cant' be helped with your a writer.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I love old cemeteries--the older the better. I'm fascinated by the "tent graves" covered in slabs of stone to keep critters from digging up the departed. At least that's what I was told the purpose was for. Great post!

ElaineCharton said...

Hi Debra- One of my favorite things to do when we travel is go through old cemeteries. You can learn so much from them. The stories they tell are fascinating.
Thanks for that Find a Grave site. I am trying to do family genealogy, in my copious spare time. :) Can't wait to start looking in there.

Eliza Watson said...

I confess, I am obsessed with cemeteries. I try to take one in whenever I travel. I've been to every one in Paris--more than once--and some of the most remote ones in Ireland--now located in fields of sheep. One of the most interesting cemeteries is the Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Very unique, and sad. I love the Find a Grave website also. I used it often.

So you're not alone!

Na said...

I used to randomly visit cemeteries just to look at the dates and imagine who these people were and what happened to them. There is a lot of history there. All this exploring I would do in full daylight though when there are other people around as I do get scared.

Loria Schleiff said...

Genealogy and cemeteries are quite fascinating subjects. Keep digging at those graves, (figuratively) and you're bound to unearth a story or two. The moment of death is as important as the moment of birth, after all.