Friday, March 23, 2018
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 comforting thought.
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 offer.
For Tombstone 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 …
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
This past Sunday, May 1st marked the beginning of National Pet Week. As a pet owner and dog-lover, I am always touched by the cemeteries with pets buried near their owners. And the stories of their devotion, even after death. Today I’ll share two of the cemetery legends I’ve come across.
John Heinl & Stiffy Green, Highland Lawn Cemetery, Terre Haute, Indiana
|Highland Lawn Cemetery|
Highland Lawn Cemetery, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, is known as the burial place for many famous people, including politicians Eugene Debs, Daniel Voorhees and inventor Theodore Hudnut. But ask a local about Highland Lawn and they will tell you the story of Stiffy Green.
Terre Haute florist and businessman, John Gradl Heinl, and his bulldog, Stiffy Green, were well known in Terre Haute in the early part of the 20th century. The two would stroll around town each day, John Heinl, pipe in hand, talking to his small companion and stopping to visit with the folks they met. Stiffy Green, so named because of his stiff walking gait and startling greenish colored eyes, was friendly but ferociously protective of Mr. Heinl and did not allow anyone to get too close to his beloved master.
When John Heinl passed away on December 31st, 1920, Stiffy was inconsolable. He sat by the coffin at the funeral and followed the family to the graveyard where he took up post at the mausoleum doors. There he remained, guarding his master in death as he had guarded him in life. Family and friends made many trips to the cemetery that winter to retrieve Stiffy and take him home, only for him to return to his master’s crypt doors.
After a few months, Stiffy refused to eat or drink. But he continued his vigil on the mausoleum steps, regardless of the weather. Mrs. Heinl was the one to find that Stiffy had died outside the mausoleum doors, having grieved himself to death. In view of his unwavering love and devotion, she had him stuffed in the sitting position he had assumed for so many months on those cold mausoleum steps. Stiffy was then placed inside the tomb, reunited at last with his master.
But it wasn’t long before visitors began noticing that Stiffy had mysteriously moved from one side of the tomb to the other, and back. Rumors spread that early in the morning or at twilight you could see an elderly man and his small dog walking near the Heinl crypt, the smell the rich pipe smoke in the air and a low voice talking to his devoted companion who would answer with a happy bark.
|Vigo County |
Historical Society Museum
But all good things must come to an end – even in death. Vandals would not leave the site alone, damaging doors and windows. In 1985, thugs shot out Stiffy’s right glass eye. The family decided it was time for Stiffy to be moved and the Vigo County Historical Society Museum agreed to take him. There, the Terre Haute Lions Club built a replica of the Heinl mausoleum.
Today, Stiffy Green is still on guard – unless he and John are taking a pleasant evening stroll in Highland Lawn Cemetery.
Location: Highland Lawn Cemetery, Heinl Mausoleum, Plot: Section 1, Lot 21
Vigo County Historical Society Museum – 1411 South 6th Street, Terre Haute, IN
John Gray and Greyfriars Bobby – Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland
Bobby, a Skye terrier, was the beloved and faithful companion of policeman, John “Auld Jock” Gray. Gray lived in Edinburgh, Scotland in the mid-1800’s. On February 15, 1858, Gray died of tuberculosis. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard (church yard) in Edinburgh. Bobby was found the next morning, guarding his master’s grave.
According to various reports of the time, Kirkyard keeper, James Brown had to run Bobby off because the churchyard was posted “No Dogs.” But Bobby kept coming back, night after night, to sleep on his master’s grave. Seeing such loyalty, Brown decided to make an exception for Bobby.
Word spread throughout the community and soon town’s folk were bringing Bobby food and water, they even built a shelter for him near the grave. But due to the high cost of a dog license, no one would claim him and take him home. It was finally decreed that without a license, Bobby would have to be put to death as a stray.
|Sir William Chambers|
It was 1867 when the town council of Edinburgh met to discuss this case. Bobby had been sleeping at the cemetery for almost ten years and had become a beloved fixture of the town. The presiding Lord Provost of the city, Sir William Chambers, a dog-lover, arranged to pay all license fees for Bobby, indefinitely. Bobby was then given a new collar with a brass plate, which read:
Greyfriars Bobby – from the Lord Provost, 1867, licensed.
Bobby died January 14, 1872 at the age of 16. For 14 years he had loyally guarded his friend. Now his grave lies 75 yards from his masters, just inside the gates of Greyfriars Kirkyard.
|Bobby's 2-Tier Fountain|
A year after his death, Baroness Burdett Coutts had a statue of the little dog sitting atop a water fountain, with a top level for human drinking and a bottom level for pets, erected to commemorate Bobby’s life and his deep devotion to Gray, a friendship that surpassed death.
|Sign over Pub Door|
The statue and fountain are located in front of “Bobby’s Bar,” a pub named after Scotland's most famous dog.
In 1981, The Duke of Gloucester unveiled a red granite headstone that had been placed on Bobby’s grave by the Dog Aid Society of Scotland. The inscription reads:
Died 14th January 1872
Aged 16 years
Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.
Bobby truly earned the designation of “Scotland’s Most Faithful Dog.”
Location: Greyfriars Kirkyard, Inside main gates, Edinburgh, Scotland
Friday, we'll take another look at 'Devoted Pets and the Cemeteries They Inhabit.'