Friday, November 9, 2018

Caskets Made by Monks

Saint Meinrad
Saint Meinrad is a monastery located in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana near the town of Saint Meinrad. The monastery was founded in 1854 by two Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Today the monastery operates a seminary and school of theology with more than 80 monks residing there.

Besides living lives of prayer, the monks of Saint Meinrad also have a line of caskets. Abbey Caskets was founded in 1999 as a way to support the works of the Archabbey. The caskets are built around the simple design used for the caskets for Benedictine monks for centuries.

Traditional Caskets
Local craftsmen handcraft the wooden caskets and cremation urns from hardwoods like walnut, oak, poplar and cherry according to the specifications of the monks. The caskets are lined with linen-covered mattress and a pillow.

Cremation Urns
According to the Archabbey, “The quality and construction of our caskets and urns represent the monks’ values of reverence, dignity and hope.” Traditional and monastic caskets are available along with urns for cremains and handcrafted furniture, which includes deacon benches, foyer benches and kneelers.

Interior Monk's Casket
The production facility is located on the Archabbey grounds and overseen by one of the brothers. This also allows customers to tour the production facility and see how the caskets are made. 

St. Meinrad Cemetery
There are two showrooms – one in Saint Meinrad and another at the Monastery of Holy Cross in Chicago. The monks offer a program where a person may make monthly payments may be now to relieve the family from the burden of funeral planning later. According to the 1994 Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule, "funeral homes must allow for the use of a casket purchased else where, and may not charge a fee."

Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln
In keeping with the Benedictine spirit of hospitality, the grounds of Saint Meinrad and the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, built in the Romanesque style, are open for visitors to explore.

For more information, to schedule a tour or to order visit
Or call 800-987-7380. Saint Meinrad also provides retreats throughout the year and has a gift shop and bookstore on the grounds.
~ Joy

Friday, November 2, 2018

Day of the Dead - Día de los Muertos

Today is the final day to celebrate the Day of the Dead – a time to honor and celebrate loved ones who have died. The holiday is held November 1st and 2nd throughout Central and Southern Mexico. According to Mexican tradition, the gates of heaven open at midnight October 31st and all of the children who have died come back to visit their families. On November 2nd, adults who have departed are also able to return to earth for a short visit with loved ones… a true celebration of life and death.


Aztec and Mayan cultures have celebrated Day of the Dead for thousands of years. Mourning the dead was considered disrespectful so a party was thrown each year to remember and honor those who had died. Instead of two days, those celebrations lasted for an entire month and offerings were made to Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Dead.

A Family Alter
Alters are the centerpieces of the festivities. They are erected in homes and cemeteries and decorated with flowers. (Marigolds are the most popular because they are said to attract the dead.) Fruits and a candle for each deceased family member along with photos are included. An array of food is prepared, maybe a loved one’s favorite meal, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and water waiting to welcome visiting spirits back home. Special gifts like candies and toys are left for the children’s spirits while adults are offered cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Families honor their loved ones to the best of their abilities so only the best food and drinks are provided.

Cleaning the Graves
November 2nd is a social day in the local village. It's the day families travel to the cemetery to clean and decorate their loved ones graves, visit with neighbors, and remember those who have passed with stories and humor. Sugar skulls, a regional candy made of sugar cane and decorated elaborately, are believed to be “absorbed” by the visiting souls. The local band provides music for the event.

La Calavera Catrina is a symbol of the day. This female skeleton was created by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1910 and dressed in the styles of 1900 including a large brimmed black hat. Men dress in fancy suits, and everyone paints their faces to resemble colorful skulls. The costumes are also a reminder that we are all the same under the skin. Singing, dancing and parades are held as part of the celebration. Noisemakers are used to “wake up the dead” and keep them involved in the celebration. When the party is over, the dog Xoloitzcuintli is said to assist in guiding the souls back to heaven.

Sugar Skulls
Day of the Dead celebrations are held in Latin American countries, Spain and the United States. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed Day of the Dead as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Sugar skulls are popular with children, and parades of costumed revelers are always anticipated. Although the holiday is fun and festive, it is meant to honor loved ones who have died, and to celebrate life, and death – something we all will eventually have in common with each other.

~ Joy

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Haunted Landmark Theatre - New York

Theatres are the homes of stories acted out with all the emotion, rivalry, and angst of real life events. Actors are known to be temperamental, and accidents, suicides, and murders are high on the list for providing theatres with their resident ghosts. Whether a grand dame in New York, a small community theatre in the Midwest, or a tiny Black Box theatre out West, there’s more spirit on the stage than you might think. In fact, many ghost actors refuse to take that final curtain call, preferring instead to tread the boards for eternity. In Syracuse New York,  the Landmark Theatre is one such place…

The hauntings began two years after Loew’s State Theatre opened in 1928 in Syracuse, New York. Built by Marcus Loew, the gilded movie palace held over 3,000 seats and showed silent films and “talkies.” For silent movies, the majestic Wurlitzer organ provided music and numerous sound effects. With 1,400 pipes, the theatre would come to life with music, birdsong, hoof beats and animal sounds. A Tiffany chandelier graced the lobby, and the grand staircase led to the Promenade Balcony where a fishpond with a Chinese pagoda fountain could be found.

The theatre continued through the Great Depression and into World War Two showing newsreels of battles and air wars, and popular Hollywood war films starring Clark Gable and John Wayne. But by the 1970s, it had fallen on hard times. The organ and the chandelier had been sold, and vandals had destroyed the rich fabrics, gilded walls and stories-high murals. The theatre seemed doomed to the wrecking ball. But thanks to some sharp thinking citizens, the Loew State Theatre building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, saving the grand dame from demolition.

Today there are three ghosts said to haunt the Landmark Theatre. The most “friendly” is Clarissa, an actress who fell from the balcony. The scent of lilacs, her favorite flower, trails her as she meanders across the stage. But she has no tolerance for smokers. Light up a cigarette and Clarissa may appear to remind you to douse the “coffin nail.” Clarissa is seen as a wispy white figure who floats through the building. Ghost hunters have captured a woman’s voice saying, “I fell off.” Could it be Clarissa explaining what happened to her that fateful night in 1930?

A stagehand known as Oscar also keeps watch over the theatre. Oscar was electrocuted one night while working on the lighting board. Today he is known to flip the lights on and off when he’s restless. Oscar can provide a shocking experience if sighted still puttering around with the current theatre’s lighting board.

Then there’s Charlie the janitor who lived in the theatre basement as a caretaker during the 1970s. Charlie died of natural causes downstairs but he still takes his job seriously. Piles of dirt and debris are moved around the theatre as Charlie continues to clean up.

In 2011, the Landmark Theatre held a grand opening after a 16-million dollar renovation. The theatre now holds haunted tours to showcase their resident spirits. These annual fundraisers are held in October with the assistance of the Central New York Ghost Hunters.
Today, the Landmark is home to Broadway musicals, stage plays and private events. And also to an actress, stagehand and janitor who still believe that "the show must go on."
~ Joy

Landmark Theatre
362 South Salina Street
Syracuse, New York

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