Graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries: spending an afternoon with the dead.Posted: August 16, 2013 | |
** ADOPTING THE GRAVES OF FRANCES & LITTLE ONE **
In last week’s Countdown to Halloween post, I created a printable checklist of things to do in the weeks leading up to October 31st. One of my favorite suggestions in the booklet is to adopt a grave and tend it through the season. At the time, I was just thinking about gently sweeping away debris and leaving flowers. And that’s a perfectly satisfying thing to do – in fact, I did it today.
I went to the closest old graveyard with some flowers and my camera.
There were all sorts of touching and appealing options, but for some reason this little stone just caught me by the heart. It sits at the foot of a larger marker which is engraved with Frances’ full name, life dates, and a dedication from her husband. She was 31 when she was buried in 1904. Based only on the foot stone, I assume she died in childbirth.
The grave(s) lie in what is now a graveyard, but was once a churchyard.
Until recently, I didn’t know there was a difference, but there is – even if the distinctions are subtle:
- churchyard: the yard or ground adjoining a church, often used as a graveyard
- graveyard: a burial ground, often associated with smaller rural churches, as distinct from a larger urban or public cemetery
- cemetery: an area set apart for or containing graves, tombs, or funeral urns, especially one that is not a churchyard
- in modern usage, however, the words cemetery and graveyard are interchangeable
** THE OLD CHURCHYARD OF ST. JOHN IN THE WILDERNESS **
In this case, the resting place of Frances and Little One was once the site of the first church built in White Bear Lake, Minnesota – St. John In the Wilderness Episcopal. (So named because it was located thirteen miles north of St. Paul, the state capital. According to church records, the first interment was in 1861. It really was a wilderness at that time.) Thus the burial ground was once a churchyard.
That changed in 1874, when the church building itself (see below) was picked up and transported over the ice of White Bear Lake, so it would be more conveniently located for parishioners. A graveyard was left behind, but it continued to serve the church.
The graveyard of St. John in the Wilderness, then, is only 152 years old. Which is nothing compared to those that can be found in New England … which is nothing compared to the churchyards of Europe.
** A CHURCHYARD IN NORFOLK **
In the introduction to his fascinating book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson relates the following conversation (which I have abridged):
“Have you ever noticed,” Brian asked as we stepped into the churchyard, “how country churches nearly always seem to be sinking into the ground?”
I allowed … that I had no idea.
“Well it isn’t because the church is sinking.” … “It’s because the churchyard has risen. How many people do you suppose are buried here?”
I glanced appraisingly at the gravestones and said, “I don’t know. Eighty? A hundred?”
“I think that’s probably a bit of an underestimate,” Brian replied with an air of kindly equanimity. “Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adult deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls that didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here in not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty-thousand.”
In the book, Brian Ayers – retired county archaeologist of Norfolk, in the East of England – goes on to explain how centuries of burials causes the land to rise over time. I encourage you to read it – it’s full of fabulous stuff like that. (Of course. It is, after all, by Bill Bryson.)
** A CHURCHYARD IN PENNSYLVANIA **
Here in in the state of Minnesota, I haven’t yet found a churchyard that matches the image that Bryson creates in my head. A bit of web searching, however, turned up this photograph from Old Pine Churchyard in Pennsylvania.
** A NEW REASON TO VISIT THE DEAD **
The churchyard / graveyard of Frances and Little One is not nearly so crowded. There is space between each monument, and I can believe that most of the 621 graves there could be accurately located.
Which is a good thing.
You see, while I was getting this post ready today, I ended up finding a new hobby.
When you go to this site, a world of interesting graveyard-related information and activities opens up. At Find A Grave, you can:
- “ Find the graves of ancestors, create virtual memorials, add ‘virtual flowers’ and a note to a loved one’s grave, etc.”
- Search for the graves of famous people by name or location (check your state for possible pilgrimage destinations)
- See photographs of interesting and unusual memorials
- Read interesting epitaphs
** DISCOVERING MY DAD **
As I explored Find A Grave, curiosity made me enter my dad’s name into the search box. I discovered that a distant cousin on my mother’s side has located and virtually adopted my dad’s grave. (My father died when I was 9, and is buried hundreds of miles away from me. I am not in contact with anyone from his side of the family. Until today I wouldn’t have known how to even find the site.) My cousin also started a online memorial which I can now add to. This discovery brought tears to my eyes.
I sent a note of thanks to my cousin, and left virtual flowers on Dad’s memorial page.
** PAYING IT FORWARD **
Then I really dug into the site.
If you go through a quick, free registration, you can also:
- Add burial information
- Volunteer to fulfill requests for photographs of grave sites
- (once you are registered you click “Contributor Tools” then look for options in Photo Volunteer)
It was this last opportunity that stole my day. (And explains my day-late post.)
** FINDING JOSEPH MARCOTTE **
In the space of one day, I was able to:
- register at Find A Grave
- find and claim a request for a grave site photo that I thought I could fulfill within 14 days
- locate the grave, photograph it & leave flowers (This grave was not at St. John in the Wilderness, but it was still an easy drive.)
- return home and click “fulfill the request”
- see the deceased’s existing online memorial (Which I could have done before I left to find his grave, but I didn’t know that.)
- read some posted information about him (He died in 1902 and was the oldest man in White Bear Lake at his death.)
- upload 3 photos to fulfill the request (with my notes about the grave site)
- leave virtual flowers for him
- AND receive a gracious thank you note from the person who placed the request
Update: The requestor of the grave photo has given me permission to share the link to Joseph Marcotte’s memorial to show how Find A Grave works.
If you click on any of the pictures credited to Renae Rude, you can see what notes I added. In this case, I was lucky – the tombstone was almost completely illegible, so I fulfilled the request with what I THOUGHT was likely Joseph’s grave. Because she had seen it years ago, she was able to confirm we’d found the right one.
I don’t suppose it will always be that easy and fast, but it was a perfect introduction to my new reason to spend inordinate amounts of time prowling graveyards.
** THE PART WHERE I CIRCLE BACK TO FRANCES & LITTLE ONE **
Of course I checked Find A Grave for additional information about Frances and Little One. There isn’t much. Someone uploaded a photograph of the main stone and transcribed the inscription. Whoever did it doesn’t appear to be a family member, but rather a person who was cataloging the whole graveyard. I added my photo of the small foot stone to the listing.
I googled Frances’ name, to see if I could find an online obituary, but nothing popped up. My next stop will be the microfiche at the local historical society. Perhaps I’ll be able to do a little more for my adopted grave than simply leave flowers.
** MORE CEMETERY INFORMATION **
I meant for this post be a comprehensive listing of cool and harmless things to do in a graveyard, but I’ve run out of time. For now, I’ll share a few random links and bits I found before I plunged into my Find A Grave project.
There is a wealth of information available at The Association for Gravestone Studies. I encourage you to explore the site thoroughly when you have time.
If you’re feeling inspired to get up and out the door NOW, I’ve cherry-picked some important and/or fun info for you:
1) It is NOT okay to do gravestone rubbing willie-nillie. If this is something you’d like to try, start by reading the guidelines here:
2) The symbols carved on tombstones, and the design of the headstones themselves, often have cultural meaning. (Though we can never be CERTAIN of why any survivor wanted a grave to appear a certain way.) For printable (PDF) guides to some common symbolism, click on either or both of the following links, which are provided by The Association for Graveyard Studies.
** I’D LIKE TO CONTINUE BUT I CAN’T **
It’s now 2:42, Friday morning. I leave for a weekend get-away at noon. I still have to go to the grocery store. (Thank God that’s open all night.) And I have to pack. (Please, oh please let me not need to do any laundry.)
As I read over this before hitting publish, I realized I’ve revealed an awful lot about the way my brain works. I hope you didn’t mind coming along for the ride.
Have a fantastic weekend, folks. And don’t forget that this a great week to hunt for possible Halloween props, decorations and costume pieces at garage sales.