I am a Tombstone Tourist: someone who loves to wander cemeteries. I find it akin to visiting a museum: an opportunity to enjoy rarely seen sculpture, intricate carvings, and amazing architecture, all in a tranquil outdoor setting. This blog is about cemetery culture, art, history, issues of death, and genealogy - subjects of current relevance. I usually find something that intrigues me and makes me want to dig deeper. Care to join me? Read on...
It was a balmy March
afternoon in Reynolds County, Missouri; one of those days when a farmer keeps
his eye on the sky because, well, you never know just what Mother Nature will
throw at you. After a satisfying dinner of fried chicken - his favorite - the farmer walked back to the field considering just how long it would
take to finish planting. As he surveyed the land, he had his back to the
west so he never noticed the odd spectacle in the distance – a rolling cloud of
what looked like fog coming right toward him. It passed in a matter of seconds,
taking it with it countless seeds, the fresh turned soil … and the farmer’s
life. Thus was the beginning of the Tri-State Tornado – the deadliest tornado
in American history – on March 18, 1925.
No warnings had been
issued, no sirens had been sounded, and not only because no one knew just how
deadly this storm would become. The US Army Signal Corps was in charge of
keeping track of the weather, which they did with reasonable accuracy for most situations,
except tornadoes. Back in 1887, the term “tornado” was banned from use in
weather forecasting. Officials said that since tornadoes were so unpredictable,
there was really no way to predict which way they’d go. They decided it best not
to mention them at all that way the public wouldn’t become panicked when one
was spotted. Radio was in its infancy, and television didn’t exist, so any
attempt to warn people would have been left up to local churches and their
tolling bells. But even that measure was not put into use.
Survivors of the
funnel reported that it appeared on the horizon, looking like a rolling cloud
of dust and dirt – the funnel obscured by debris.The tornado ranged from ¾ to 3 miles wide.
Winds averaged between 60 and 70 mph with 300 mph wind shears, blinding rain,
hail and strong thunderstorms. A 234-mile path was ravaged out of the Tri-State area by this single continuous
tornado as it cut from Missouri through southern Illinois to Pike
County Indiana that afternoon. This would be known as the single deadliest,
largest, and fastest tornado in US history. It’s record still stands.
(In 2013, researchers categorized it as an F5.)
hit: Reynolds - Iron – Madison – Bollinger - Cape Girardeau – Perry
The tornado was building speed as it spun across southeastern Missouri that Wednesday afternoon. When it struck Annapolis in Bollinger County, it nearly leveled the town with two
schools were heavily damaged. Eleven people were killed in Missouri.
Counties hit: Jackson
– Williamson – Franklin – Hamilton – White
The deadly tornado
crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois around 2:30pm gathering strength and sending out satellite tornadoes along the way. The town
of Gorham was destroyed and 34 people were killed. More than 100 square blocks
in Murphysboro Illinois were flattened, and another 70 blocks were destroyed by
fire after the tornado passed. The death toll hit 234 people including 26
children who were still in school when the building was demolished around them. Murphysboro still has the
highest single city death toll, due to a tornado, in US history.
Near the town of
Desoto, 69 people died; 33 were students at a school. The town was so
grief-stricken, all were buried in one mass grave.
The Town of West Frankfort, Illinois
The town of West
Frankfort was known for mining and at that time of day, most of the men were
working underground. No one knew anything had happened 500 feet above ground
until the electricity went out. When the miners surfaced, they discovered 148
dead, mostly women and children; another 400 sustained injuries.
The tornado then
ripped through the town of Parrish taking 22
lives. Illinois was the state hardest hit with a death toll of 619 residents.
Counties hit: Posey
– Gibson – Pike
The twister crossed the
Wabash River into southern Indiana where the town of Griffin was demolished. Twenty-six
were killed in the tiny burg. The tornado then curved a bit to the north and
headed toward Princeton, destroying 85% of the farms along the way. The
southern end of Princeton was destroyed while the northern side was untouched.
Forty-five people were killed in minutes. The tornado finally began loosing strength and dissipated
around 4:30pm about 2 ½ miles south of Petersburg in Pike County. The tornado had taken 76 Hoosier lives.
When the dust had
settled on that day, the twister had killed 695 people; 613 in Illinois. More
than 2,000 sustained injuries, again the majority in southern Illinois. The
tornado was on the ground for 3 ½ hours and destroyed more than 15,000 homes
and nine schools – taking the lives of 72 students. The Tri-State Tornado was
part of a large tornado outbreak that day that also included the states of
Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Kansas. Another 747 people were killed in
those storms, making March 18 the deadliest day in tornado history, and 1925 the
deadliest year for tornadoes in the US.
Stroll through some of the
local cemeteries in these hard-hit towns and you will find lasting tributes and
reminders of a March tornado that changed the residents lives forever.
I’ve done a lot of
interviews since my book The Family Tree
Cemetery Field Guide came out late last autumn, and the one question
everyone asks is, “Why a book on cemeteries?” My answer begins,
“Cemeteries are usually viewed with reservation because they deal with the dead. Some people see them as a
necessity to endure; others simply avoid them at all costs.And still others hardly give them a thought.
But then you have the “Tombstone Tourist.” For those of us who proudly answer to this
title, the answer is simple – because there’s so much history and beauty to discover!
For centuries, our
ancestors have gone to cemeteries to pay their respects. But since their lives dealt with death
regularly, there was nothing eerie about walking through the graveyard. We, however, are far removed from death, and its after effects. The ancient
Chinese believed that when a family member died, they
became godly beings who retained their individual identities. These ancestors
could then offer family members a connection to Tian, or heaven. The thought
that your ancestors are watching out for you, like guardian angels, is a
Then during the
Nineteenth Century garden cemeteries were developing
around the country. These cemeteries were treated like parks – the perfect place to
take a stroll or enjoy a quiet carriage ride through the “City of the
Dead.” These graveyards were well landscaped with towering trees,
beautiful lakes and winding roads where visitors could stroll while admiring ornate
sculpture, massive mausoleums and intricate stones - an outdoor art museum available for all to enjoy.
Then somewhere during the 20th century, we Americans became wary of the graveyard thanks
to horror movies and urban legends. Because of medical advances, we don’t
interact with the dead the way our ancestors did, and this distancing creates fears we're uncomfortable dealing with. There is even a name for those who fear
cemeteries - coimetrophobia. Sorry to say but you have more to fear from the
living than the dead in a cemetery. I’ve had a few uncomfortable situations in
cemeteries that had nothing to do with ghosts or ghouls, and plenty to do with the living. This is why I always remind those heading
out to do research, or just enjoy an afternoon, always be aware of your
surroundings and the people in your vicinity.
In other countries,
going to the cemetery is commonplace. When I was in Edinburgh Scotland last
summer, I ventured to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard close to the downtown area in
search of the Greyfriar Bobby statue. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked
through the gates and saw people enjoying the cemetery like a park. Some used
table ledger stones as tables for an impromptu visit, others sat among the mausoleums
chatting on cell phones, and some picnicked, and painted. And there was no
disrespect intended by anyone. It was actually a wonderful example of how other
countries are more comfortable concerning the circle of life and death than we
tend to be. Perhaps we would find ourselves more in touch with life, and death if
we shook off that fear and took time to walk and admire what cemeteries have to
Tourists, part of the acceptance of cemeteries may come from the way we were
raised. I remember going with my grandmother on Decoration Day (the forerunner
of Memorial Day) and tending family graves. Grandma would brush the stones
clear of leaves and grass, and then plant some flowers or place live stems near
the graves. While I was too young to help with the decorating, I always enjoyed
looking at the stones, reading the names, and figuring out how old someone had been when he or she died.
Most of us will
visit a cemetery to acknowledge the memory of someone buried there, and to
honor them. Visiting also offers us a sense of closeness by being at the spot
where that person’s earthly remains are interred. I have experienced this when
visiting the graves of my ancestors. To realize that this is where my
great-great grandparents are buried makes for a meaningful
moment that so many genealogists relate to.
Regardless of why
you go to the cemetery, next time stop and really experience the moment.
Listen to the birdsong, smell the fresh cut grass, feel the breeze brush past
your cheek, and look for those fascinating symbols and epitaphs on the stones;
those reminders that our stories do go on …
autumn of 1918 brought with it the prospect that The Great War would end in a few of months. Soldiers and citizens were beginning to feel uplifted again, and
plans were underway for post-war celebrations. The annoyance of catching a cold
was nothing in the scheme of things. But what no one realized was that this was not an ordinary cold; this was an
influenza virus that would leave between 20 to 40 million people dead around the world within the next year! That's more than all who died during World War One.
One-fifth of the world’s population would come down with what was being called the "Spanish Flu." (The name was the result of the more than 8 million who died from it in Spain.) But it
was believed that the virus began in China in the autumn of 1917, and spread
slowly around the world during the spring and summer of 1918. How
did the flu virus get to Europe from China? Recently a Canadian
historian discovered that 96,000 Chinese laborers were sent to Europe in
the fall of 1917 to assist with work behind the Western Front.
the virus spread easily. Any one who had caught the flu was a carrier
releasing the virus into the air whenever the infected person talked,
sneezed. Medical personnel realized that this
flu killed quickly. There were numerous reports of people going to
work in the morning, becoming sick, and being dead by nightfall. One medical
expert said that the type of pneumonia that set in was the most dangerous he
had ever seen with patients suffocating on the bloody foam that lined their
More than half a billion people were infected around the world with the most deaths occurred during October and November 1918. And there were no known
medicines to stop its spread. (The first flu vaccine came about in the 1940s.) This virus would become
the most devastating epidemic ever recorded in world history, to date.
the US, more than 675,000 Americans died of the flu – 28% of the population.
This virus was different from past viruses. Instead of taking its toll mainly on
children and the elderly, it attacked those between the ages of 20 and 40; that was the unexpected demographic
dying in large numbers. Native Americans were also extremely hard hit. And many who
survived The Great War came home only to succumb to the influenza virus.
In fact, adding the number of soldiers returning home from foreign lands,
and the number of parties and celebrations planned for Armistice Day in the US, and the virus continued to spread quickly through the end of 1918. To make things more difficult, those returning home from the war came with battle
wounds, chemical weapon burns, and what we now know as PTSD. Hospital and
doctors were already short-staffed and overworked when the affects of the flu began to be felt.
an attempt to limit exposure, cities and town began closing stores, theatres,
churches andschools. Funerals
could last no longer than 15 minutes, and train travel was frowned upon. Anyone
venturing outside was required to wear a gauze mask over their nose and mouth.
Shaking hands was forbidden, and libraries stopped lending books. By the
spring of 1919, bodies were piling up in communities around the world because there
were not enough gravediggers to bury the dead. (Those who handled
the remains had an increased chance of dying from the flu, therefore it was not a job many volunteered for.)
the summer of 1919, the Flu Pandemic was coming to an end. Years later,
researchers would discover that what fueled this severe outbreak was a combination
of things: abysmal sanitation and hygiene conditions, poor nourishment, and overcrowding
in military camps and hospitals, and in cities and towns, once the disease
Today, flu vaccines
and super antibiotics help reduce the possibility of another severe flu outbreak
worldwide. But there is always a chance that a virus will rapidly mutate and
medical science could be caught short of having the necessary treatment at hand. In fact, experts say it's only a matter of time before another flu