Friday, June 8, 2018

Cedars in the Cemetery

Cedars in the Cemetery
As a Tombstone Tourists (someone who frequent cemeteries), I love the abundance of evergreen trees found in the older sections of the graveyard. These trees lend color and aroma to a somewhat bleak terrain, thanks to their rich greenness, hardiness and longevity. Cemetery evergreens include cedars, firs, pines, spruce, hemlock, juniper and yew trees. But cedar trees are my favorite.

A "Weeping" Cedar Tree
There are four main types of cedar trees including Atlas (found mainly in Africa), Deodar (grows in the U.S. and favored for its long-hanging "weeping" appearance; perfect for a cemetery), Cedar of Cyprus (found mainly in Cyprus, Syria and Turkey), and Cedar of Lebanon (the most cold-hardy of the group also found in the U.S.) Cedars became popular as graveyard trees because they were considered sacred in several countries. Their “forever greenness"  represents eternal life or the concept of rebirth.

Statue and Cedar
Ancient Egyptians thought that cedar trees represented immortality. This is why cedar resin was used in the embalming process, and as a liner in coffins.
The Cherokee Indians believed that cedar trees took on the spirits of those buried under them. Therefore, these trees were scared to Native Americans.

Other lore and superstition associated with the cedar tree include:
If you plant a cedar tree, you are bringing good luck to the location.
Cutting down a cedar tree is bad luck.
If a cedar tree dies in your yard, someone in the family will die.
Young Cones on a Cedar Tree
If you tie a knot in a cedar twig still on the branch, name it after your love, and it continues to grow, that person will grow to love you.
Cedar trees bring wealth and prosperity to the landowner.
You may only bring a cedar tree into your home during the Christmas season. Otherwise, you are dragging in bad luck.
For good luck, plant a cedar tree.
Cedar trees repel evil spirits.
Cedars in Winter
The abundance of cedar trees in older cemeteries offers comfort. These strong, sturdy trees grace the graves of our ancestors: pioneers, frontiers men and women, and those who dared to come to America and blaze their own trails. It's encouraging to see their graves are protected, sheltered and shaded by these beautiful sentinels.
~ Joy
I will be at the annual American Library Association (ALA) Conference and Exhibit  in New Orleans on June 21- 23 signing copies of my book, The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide. If you’re in the area, stop in.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Memories

As a child, I remember going with my grandmother to the cemetery to "decorate the graves" as she called it. It was just something you did for the dead - cleaned off the stones, trimmed back the grass around "their patch," and lay fresh flowers on their graves. Although I was young and not much help, Grandma took me and let me play among the graves as she went about her work.

This may be where my interest in cemeteries began. I remember walking along the graves and being fascinated with the names: Aloysius, Edwina, Victoria, Nathanial. They all sounded charming yet old fashioned. As I figured out the ages of death from those stones, I wondered about the lives of the people with whose names. Had they married? Did they have children? Had they been happy? Had they had a good life? And then there were the epitaphs: Dear Brother, Remembered Aunt, Beloved Wife, and Our Baby – those were the stones that always gave me pause. It was the realization that, yes, children just like me could die. 

My grandmother told me stories about the family members she tended. “This was your great-great grandmother, this was my brother, this was your grandpa’s dad.” All these years later, I wish I had paid more attention to these family reminisces. If only I'd known how important they'd become ...

Today, the cemetery still holds sway over me. There is still that sense of discovery and surprise as I enter hallowed ground, wondering just what I’ll find beyond that fence, those gates, up the lane.

While the day will always make me nostalgic for those mornings with Grandma, Memorial Day also seems to be the perfect time to start the search, or recommit to discovering your family history. Their stories are out there, all we have to do is begin our search, and what could be nicer on a warm spring day than a stroll through the cemetery.
~ Joy

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Deadliest Tornado in US History

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.) 

Counties 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
Murphysboro, Illinois
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.

Griffin, Indiana
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.
~ Joy

Friday, March 23, 2018

Why Do We Wander Cemeteries?

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 …
~ Joy

Friday, March 9, 2018

100 Years Ago – The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

The 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.

And 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, coughed, or 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 airways.
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.

In 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.

In an attempt to limit exposure, cities and town began closing stores, theatres, churches and  schools. 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.)

By 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 spread.

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 pandemic occurs.

~ Joy

Friday, February 23, 2018

Waverly Disaster

On a chilly Friday afternoon, just days after a train derailment in Waverly, Tennessee, a tanker car loaded with an unstable gas exploded during cleanup attempts. Sixteen people died in the February 24, 1978 blast.

The derailment of 24 cars from a Louisville and Northern Railroad freight train occurred Wednesday night, February 22, in downtown Waverly. Officials made the mistake of classifying one of the tankers as double walled when it was actually single walled. Local police and fire departments were on the scene for two days, spraying the cars with water in an attempt to keep them cool. The weather was assisting with temperatures in the 20s and a light snow on the ground. When HAZMAT teams arrived Friday morning, the weather had changed; the sun was shinning and temperatures had climbed into the mid-50s – heating up a single walled train car containing 2,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas. Officials tested the area for leaks and found none. At around 3pm, as crews were setting up HAZMAT equipment, an explosion rocked the region, igniting the car into a fireball, throwing train cars for hundreds of feet, and triggering flash fires in and around the downtown area. Residents were evacuated within one mile of the blast zone for fear of more gas leaks.

Records indicate that six people were killed instantly in the blast. Ten died as a result of injuries sustained from the explosion. Among them was Waverly’s fire chief Wilbur York, 65, city police chief Guy Barnett, 46, Tennessee Office of Civil Defense state investigator 24 year old Mark Belyew, five L&N cleanup crew members, two fire fighters, and six local residents. Forty-three people were burned and injured. For the next several hours assistance came from as far as Memphis and Nashville with firefighting air assistance and air ambulances traveling from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Burn victims were sent to Cincinnati Ohio, Louisville Kentucky, and Birmingham Alabama. A total of 16 buildings were destroyed in the downtown area.

Reports later indicated that the blast was caused when the single walled train car began leaking gas out through a crack that was caused by the derailment. Although the local emergency crews were prepared to handle train derailments, they were not trained in handling hazardous materials. In 1980, new training standards were put in place in Tennessee. To date, there have been no emergency responders killed at HAZMAT sites in the state.
Today the town remembers the horrific incident with a museum and memorial. The Waverly Train Explosion Memorial Museum is located by the railroad tracks where the blast occurred. A fitting tribute to those who died.
~ Joy

Friday, February 16, 2018

Did Opening King Tut’s Tomb Dig Up a Curse?

Valley of the Kings
It was February 16, 1923, in the Valley of the Kings when the tomb of King Tutankhamen was officially opened. English Egyptologist Howard Carter had searched for five years before discovering the tomb on November 26, 1922. Fortunately, it was one of the few tombs that had not yet been found, which meant that the treasure trove it contained was still intact.

King Tutankhamen
The sarcophagus contained three coffins encased inside one another. In the last coffin, made of solid gold, explorers discovered the mummified body of King Tutankhamen.
King Tut’s tomb contained close to 5,300 items his followers had sealed away for his use in the afterlife. Things like chariots, weapons, furniture, jewelry, statues, clothing, funeral items, and works of ancient art. But the most valuable artifact in the tomb was the mummy of the boy-king. 

Tomb Treasures
The relics were removed from the tomb for sketching, photographing, recording, and cataloging. Due to the interest in preserving the artifacts, it took more than 10 years to remove all of the treasures... and some "disappeared." Once the items were preserved, a traveling exhibition known as the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” made its way around the world. The collection now resides in a permanent home at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. 

Of course, there were rumors of a curse that would descend upon all who disrupted the ruler’s eternal rest. Supposedly engraved in hieroglyphics on the exterior of the tomb were the words, “Death Shall Come on Swift Wings To Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King.” The “Mummy’s Curse” is claimed to have taken numerous lives.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon
Lord Carnarvon and His Daughter
Carnarvon had financed the excavation of the tomb from 1918 to 1923. The Earl was on hand at the Tomb in November, 1922, and again on March 6th the day he was bitten by a mosquito. He nicked the bite while shaving and it became infected. Carnarvon died of blood poisoning on April 5, one month after his second visit to the tomb, and six weeks after the media began reporting on the curse. To add fuel to the fire, there was a widespread blackout in Cairo on the night Carnarvon died. But it was said that power failures were common in the area…

 George Jay Gould

American financier and railroad executive, George Jay Gould, visited the tomb in the spring of 1923. Rumor spread that he became ill with a fever immediately afterwards and died of pneumonia on May 16, 1923.

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid
Sir Archibald Douglas Reid was the radiologist who x-rayed the mummy before it was presented to museum officials. Reid became sick the following day and died of a mysterious illness three days later, on January 15, 1924.

Arthur Cruttenden Mace
Arthur Cruttenden Mace was a British Egyptologist, and member of Carter’s excavation team in 1923. Mace assisted Carter in writing the draft for the first volume of The Tomb of Tutankhmun. Mace died of arsenic poisoning on April 6, 1928; another death supposedly related to the curse.

Richard Bethell
Richard Bethell, Howard Carter’s personal secretary died on November 15, 1929 at the London Mayfair Gentleman's Club. He was discovered smothered in his room. Some suggested that it was the curse at work since Bethell’s home had experience a series of small fires after some of the treasures from the tomb were "stored" there.
Richard Bethell, Baron Westbury
Bethell’s father, Richard Bethell, 3rd Barron Westbury was also thought to be a victim of the curse. The Baron killed himself by jumping off the 7th floor of his apartment building on February 20, 1930. It was reported that several of the tomb’s treasures had also been stored there. Bethell's suicide note read, in part, "I really cannot stand any more horrors and hardly see what good I am going to do here, so I am making my exit." Were the horrors related to the tomb? No one could say for sure.
By 1929, eleven people were said to have died from the curse.
Howard Carter
Interestingly, Howard Carter, the first person to enter the tomb never suffered any ill effects. Carter lived to the age of 64, dying of natural causes. He did, however, record in his diary during the excavation that he had seen jackals, known as the guardians to the dead, roaming in the area. It was the first time he had seen them in that region after 35 years of working there.

So was the curse real? Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, said he was sure the curse existed and began promoting wild accusations after Lord Carnarvon died. Others say that Carnarvon himself created the curse as a way to keep reporters and sightseers away from the excavation. (Unfortunately for him, he added to the legend by conveniently dying soon after.) Although the tomb was opened 95 years ago, many think the curse is still to be believed.
~ Joy