Friday, June 22, 2012

Accordions in the Cemetery

 June is National Accordion Month.  While at first this doesn’t appear to be a topic for a cemetery blog – it is.  It seems that accordions do have their place in the cemetery.

The accordion, also called the squeezebox is a bellows-driven musical instrument with keys that control the reeds inside the box.  An accordion can be played solo and is usually considered a one-man-band instrument.

In View of the Lincoln Tomb
In Springfield, Illinois the grave of “Mr. Accordion” holds a prominent spot in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Roy Bertelli has a small plot within sight (and hearing distance) of Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb.

Mr Accordion
Bertelli called himself “Mr. Accordion” and had a lifelong love affair with the instrument.  He wanted to be remembered for what had given him his greatest joy in life.
Entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery
Bertelli, a Springfield resident, also wanted to be buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.  He approached the cemetery years ago to see if there were any plots available in the area he was interested in.  Cemetery personnal said that the tiny triangle of land near Lincoln’s tomb could be purchased.  Bertelli was said to have bought it on the spot.

Oak Ridge Cemetery Office
But a few weeks later he received a letter from the cemetery telling him that the plot was sold to him by mistake.  According to friends of Bertelli, he would have returned the plot to Oak Ridge – but then a second letter came from an attorney representing the cemetery making the usual threats if he did not comply with the return.

Lifetime Dedication & WW II Vet
Roy Bertelli & His Accordions
Bertelli decided to fight.  He not only refused to return the plot, he placed a two thousand pound above ground granite crypt with the image of an accordion carved on it and the words “Lifetime Dedication to the Accordion.” It is said that he paid $30,000 for the marker.  Bertelli enjoyed showing up, standing on his crypt and playing the accordion for cemetery visitors, waiting to tour Lincoln’s Tomb, (Oak Ridge Cemetery has over 375,000 visitors each year,) much to the embarrassment of the cemetery officials and the City of Springfield.

Camp Butler Cemetery
Roy Bertelli
When Roy Bertelli died in 2003 at the age of 92, he succeeded in having the last laugh.  It seems that Bertelli was not buried in his accordion crypt as planned, but was interred at Camp Butler National Cemetery east of Springfield since he was a veteran of WW II.  Rumor has it that his beloved accordions now reside inside the crypt.

Green-Wood Cemetery Entrance
Another episode of cemeteries and accordions had to do with a site specific performance –walking tour.  The performance group Angels and Accordions began to present shows set to accordion music in 2004.  The Dance Theatre Etcetera and the Green-Wood Historic Fund for the Green-Wood Cemetery, located in Brooklyn, New York, produced the programs.  

Angels in White, Musicians in Black
A cast of thirty angels, dressed in white, ten accordions and an ensemble of classical music performers dressed in black,  guided visitors through the cemetery to the sounds of original music composed for the event. 

Angels at Tombstone
In the Catacombs
Instead of the usual polka type music expected from accordions these musicians played more somber and deeper music.  Singers and performers could be found interacting at gravesites, with statuary and monuments, among the trees, even in the cemetery’s catacombs - all performing to the melancholy music of accordions and classical instruments.  Accordions were chosen as the lead instruments because of their portability.

An Angel in the Cemetery
The idea of the show was to involve the public with the artistic works and music of the cemetery.  It was a way to get people to see cemeteries not as repositories of death but also as beautiful places that can show us the complexities and richness of life.

Angels Among the Monuments
The performances were delightful and exciting, but as cemeteries teach us, all things must pass.  It was decided in 2010 that Angels and Accordions had ran it’s course and the final program was presented on October 9, 2010. 

Accordion Keyboard
Although accordions are viewed more as a folk music instrument, they are gaining popularity in classical music, and as we’ve seen, they are also taking their place in cemetery lore.

~ Joy


  1. Beautiful! I have my grandfather's first accordian. It is made of wood and I am afraid to touch it. The bellows are falling apart, but the memories of him playing - priceless.

  2. Thank you! You truly have a priceless treasure with your grandfather's first accordion.

  3. I, too, love visiting and photographing cemeteries, too. (I often think some people are treated better in death than they were in life, that maybe all those monuments are to make up for the kind words not shared during a person's lifetime.) Several years ago, I spent 2 weeks at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and spent a lot of time walking around their revolutionary war cemetery. I found it fascinating to see confederate flags stuck into the dirt at so many graves -- especially because the flags were new...

  4. Bryna, I saw the same thing with the Confederate flags when I was living in Kentucky last year.