Graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries: spending an afternoon with the dead.

 For me, time spent in a cemetery is peaceful and conducive to introspection at any time of the year. My favorite season to visit a graveyard, though, is autumn.

In the northern hemisphere, at some point in September or October, a well-treed cemetery will become one of the loveliest possible places to view the colors of fall’s changing leaves. The park-like nature of the grounds make it likely that these brilliant reds and golds will be displayed above, against an azure sky, and underfoot, against an emerald lawn. A graveyard in the fall tends to be a quiet place, with few other people around to intrude on one’s thoughts. As a bonus, autumn’s cooler temperatures reduce the number of mosquitoes that often seem to love old, shaded cemeteries as much as I do.

Besides all that, the season of All Hallows Eve, Samhain, and Dia de los Muertos just feels like an entirely appropriate time to spend an afternoon with the dead.


In another of my Halloween articles, I provide 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.

This is something I’ve been doing casually for a long time, but when I decided to elaborate on the activity for this Halloween-themed post, I set out for the graveyard so I could get some photographs. At the time, I was just thinking about gently sweeping away debris and leaving a flower.


As usual, there were all sorts of touching and appealing candidates for grave adoption, but the moment I saw this little stone I was caught 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 and her little one 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, the words cemetery and graveyard are interchangeable.

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. At that time, the area really was wilderness.)

Though this burial ground was once a churchyard, it became a graveyard 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 that continued to serve the church was left behind. (No churchyard exists at the site where the church was moved to.)

red church

The graveyard of St. John in the Wilderness is only 152 years old… which is nothing compared to those that can be found on the East Coast … which is nothing compared to the churchyards of Europe.


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.)


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.

Old Pine Street Church yard

By John W. Schulze
shared via Creative Commons

In the summer of 2014, I did get the opportunity to visit an American churchyard, in Beaufort, North Carolina. It was beautiful and I made a video tour to share with you.

For more information about the cemetery, visit

Gorgeous Graveyards: The Old Burying Ground, Beaufort, NC


The Minnesota 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 recorded burials there are accurately represented by tombstones.

Which is a good thing.

You see, while I was getting this post ready today, I ended up finding a new hobby, and a new reason to spend time in cemeteries.

find a grave banner

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


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.


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)


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 locating and photographing lost graves 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.


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 obituary, but nothing popped up. My next stop will have to be the microfiche at the local historical society. I’d like to find more information about her, so that I can add it to her online grave site listing.



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.

BONUS: My favorite graveyard song. (I also think of it as sort of my theme song.)




21 Comments on “Graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries: spending an afternoon with the dead.”

  1. Pooka says:

    I think it’s safe to say that this particular blog post is a bit of a journey. Best taken in order and as a whole, no rushing! Many things stand out, but one of the highlights was finding your father’s grave via that grave finder website. Very cool.

  2. angryscholar says:

    I used Findagrave a lot for a project I was working on in the archaeology lab at my university. If you combine it with, it’s stunning (and kind of scary) how much you can find out. Scarier still to think that we’ll all be in those databases one day (if we aren’t already).

    • I experienced that same sense of creepy wonder about just how much info is out there.

      Is only useful if you have a paid account? I plan to go after it someday, when I’m not so embroiled in the fiction and blog writing … I suspect it could consume hundreds of hours.

  3. Patrick says:

    Amazing post! I’ve always wondered why sites like this didn’t exist. So many people in the world just don’t get the beauty and fascination with an old grave yard… or any cemetery for that matter. I saw the first part of this post early this morning and have since chosen my old cemetery near me and this weekend will adopt a couple of headstones. Thank you for the great post! Hope you have a great trip!!

    • Yeah, I was just so pleased to find it – especially the ‘request a grave site photo’ part of the site. It adds an entirely new dimension to graveyard time. I really like the feeling that I’m contributing in a concrete way to someone’s genealogy project.

      I did have a good weekend – I went to an Ojibwe Pow-Wow!

      • Patrick says:

        Putting it that way makes me want to go through all of my cemetery pics and search for them. In my Ancestry research I found some trees missing dates and grave stone photos that I ended up having. I felt proud to be able to message them with the info. Whether they want it or not I guess is another story. I didn’t spend a ton of time on offering help on the other site. I should.

  4. Kate is says:

    I love your journey and thank you for documenting it. My house is Scotland has a graveyard. I use to walk around it as a kid, and so have no issue with them as an adult.

  5. […] by the amazing Renae Rude – The Paranormalist, who is a fellow lover of all things autumn and spooky, I decided to begin a new autumn tradition […]

  6. linktay says:

    The part about your dad was absolutely amazing, thank you for sharing this post with us. I would love to adopt a grave and will have to add it to my fall checklist.

    • I know, Linktay – knowing someone adopted my Dad’s grave was just so touching to me.

      I’d love to hear what you find if you adopt a grave of your own…I really enjoyed reading Patrick’s post about what he’s discovered. (But, wow, he is a genealogical wizard!)

  7. Bhavana says:

    You would like the site It’s retired, but you can still see it. While mostly about cemeteries, a taphophile is someone interested in all things to do with death. I have been fascinated with cemeteries all my life, and living in the northeast, have no shortage of places to explore, sketch, even just go to to relax. Great post, nice idea to adopt a grave.

  8. […] For Renae Rude – The Paranormalist’s post that inspired this tradition, visit Graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries: spending an afternoon with the dead.  […]

  9. We visited what is considered one of the most haunted cemeteries in Connecticut, where the ghost of a white lady is said to roam. Very cool place. The graveyard is quite old and unfortunately the legends surrounding the place also draw all kinds of people and some of the headstones have been broken. It’s a shame. Leave the place the same of better than the way you found it. – Here’s the link: Monster Men Ep. 40: The White Lady of Union Cemetery, Easton, CT —

    • Thank you, Jack! It was cool to watch. (But then I always enjoy your work.)

      Yes, I am VERY concerned about how people sometimes act in graveyards. I’m afraid the vandals and idiots are going to make it harder for the rest of us to have free access. I don’t want this to become one of those, “This is why we can’t have nice things” situations. I’d turn in a vandal in a heartbeat.

  10. […] For Renae Rude – The Paranormalist’s post that inspired this tradition, visit Graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries: spending an afternoon with the dead.  […]

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