Author Archives: martha

Lordy, it’s been a while

I know I’m a terrible blogger, but nearly two years since my last post! Sigh.

To catch you up: I’m now the president of the cemetery board on which I sit, I still discuss the future of the funeral industry with my students every semester, and I was able to visit a couple of old New England cemeteries while we were on vacation this summer. Here’s a couple of photos:

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Learn about cemeteries at school

This year, I thought I should learn more about how to manage a cemetery. I looked online for a course I could take, and found this: Introduction to Sustainable Cemetery Management. (This page says the course number is 499, but it’s actually 199; here’s the syllabus).

The course is taught by Cynthia Beal, who owns two cemeteries herself, and who also founded the Natural Burial Company. The company concentrates on sourcing, selling, and advocating the use of biodegradable containers for bodies and cremains.

The funeral business is changing rapidly, and taking Cynthia’s course is one way to start to get a leg up on a lot of what’s going on. Though the course offers college credit, it is available to those, like me, who are merely interested in the topic, and aren’t looking for the credits.

Taking the class while teaching last fall (as well as developing a new book imprint, Word Posse, with my writers group), took up most of my time and is why Cemetery Chick has been neglected for a couple of months. But now that this course is finished, and Word Posse is launched, it’s time for me to get back to the business of keeping this page going and distributing fun, useful, and just plain interesting information to netizens like you.

Cemeteries have always been about the past, but now they need to encompass the future, too. There’s so much going on, and as the new year dawns, it will be a good time to start making some of it go on here.

Bedbugs and churchyards

One of my favorite novels of all time is Watership Down. The first time I went to Britain with my husband, I made sure we stopped for a few days in the town nearest the down, which is Kingsclere in Hampshire. While there, we learned about how King John visited the town once, and had a sleepless night because he was tormented by bedbugs. He demanded that the locals banish their bedbugs far away, and the furthest point they could think of was on top of the church. And that’s where a golden bedbug sits to this day. The cemetery around Kingsclere is a charming place, so if you’re ever in the area, take the time to visit the cemetery, the church, and its infamous bedbug.kingsclere

The people I wish I’d met, and one other

I don’t just visit cemeteries, I also read obituaries.  Many people put such fascinating things in their loved ones’ obituary that it makes me sad I never met this person who was so obviously interesting. Here are some words about some of those people:

“Mom shared puzzles of every kind with us . . . now she [is] filling in all the blanks and fitting together all the pieces, even the ones that have been missing.” 

“She is remembered for her optimism, courage, and love of Corvettes.”

“She was an expert in handwriting analysis and had been involved in numerous consulting engagements.”

“In 1994, she was named honorary Mayor of Dogtown despite her being “only Irish by osmosis.”"

“She also liked a good coupon and was quick to give them out.”

And then there was Gladys Ann Ross, 83, who “said she’d wait to die because she still had so many books to read.” Good for you, Gladys!

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On the other hand, not everyone is beloved, and not every family is happy—though unhappy families may not usually go to the expense that this family did. The obituary I show here was turned in by a student for one of my class assignments. Unlike the ones I’ve quoted above, it would seem Dolores was not a person you would have wanted to meet personally.  Which really is sad. That someone in the family felt strongly enough about Dolores to buy this much space in the paper to say these things about her is even more sad. I certainly hope that, when I die, no one feels this negatively about me.

Spotted on a walk

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Memorials can be found almost anywhere these days, from car windows to sidewalk pavers to small signs like this, which we found on a walk. The sign had been placed in one of this neighborhood’s common areas. No word on how the folks who mow the lawn feel about it.

I think, if I lived in this neighborhood, I would be pleased to see signs like this, but maybe I just like to think about people being remembered for nice things. It’s sweet to contemplate that the people of this neighborhood fondly remember Mr. Swift for the pleasant memories and lovely gardens he has left to those who have not yet joined him in the “infinite garden.”

Nightflyers

Ever wonder what’s flapping about the local cemetery at night?  Wildlife biologists have been studying the animals that use cemeteries for shelter and food, and some of that wildlife is nocturnal.  As in bats.  Interesting story from NPR that features Bellefontaine Cemetery here in St. Louis.

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And did those feet…?

If you’ve ever watched Monty Python, you’ve likely seen at least one sketch where the guys launch into a rendition of Jerusalem.

And did those feet, in ancient times / Walk upon England’s mountains green? (listen here)

IMG_2219aThose are the words of William Blake (1757-1827), poet and painter.  I had no idea our last trip to London would feature Blake on two consecutive days.  On one day, we visited a cemetery and there, near the center, was a marker for Blake and his wife.

The next day, we visited Tate Britain, and found they had an entire room of his works.  Forty-three of his paintings are on display, including one titled The House of Death.

Though the marker doesn’t actually denote Blake’s burial spot (the marker having been moved in the 60s), you can still visit the marker in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground and know you’re within a few yards of the poet’s last resting place. Closest Tube stop, Old Street on the Northern Line.

 

Oldest town in Missouri

This month, we had a chance to visit Ste. Genevieve, billed as the “Oldest Town in Missouri.”  It may well be.  The original town was founded ca. 1735, but was washed away by a flood in 1785.  At that time, the town was moved to its current location.  The oldest structure still standing in town is from 1790.

The French history of Missouri is on display in town, from the artifacts in the small museum, to the use of the fleur de lis everywhere, to the language on the tombstones.  Here is just one example.

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If you can read French, ponder this stone, and let me know if you can translate it.  I have a shaky knowledge of German, but not of French.

Ste. Genevieve offers more than some interesting epitaphs — of the five known examples of French Colonial vertical log construction in the United States, three are in town.  The town also boasts many small shops and restaurants.  We always make a point to eat at the Anvil because their onion rings are the best.

In fact, here’s me with an onion ring.

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If you travel around the area to the town of Kaskaskia, you can also find the Liberty Bell of the West, which was rung on July 4, 1778, to commemorate the capture of the town from the British by George Rogers Clark. Though you might not realize that this area of the United States played a part in the Revolutionary War, it did. The western side of the river was under Spanish control, but everything east of the Mississippi was claimed by Britain, even though most of the residents were French.  Today, the river’s course has moved east so that Kaskaskia is accessible by road from Ste. Genevieve without crossing the river.  It is, in fact, a tiny of slice of Illinois on the Missouri side of the Mississippi.

But for the taphophile, the cemetery is the main draw.  It’s small but well-maintained and offers plenty of shade and intriguing stones.  It’s just a little interesting slice of early French-American life and, of course, death.

 

An impossible silence

Last week, my husband and I watched the movie The Awakening, which takes place in Britain in 1921. Although it’s a ghost story, it’s more atmospheric than creepy  One of the most interesting things about it, though, didn’t really become explicit until we watched the DVD extras.  In it, Juliet Nicolson, author of The Great Silence, mentions that, during World War I, the British government made the decision not to ship bodies home because the sheer quantity of fatalities made the logistics too difficult. Those who died were buried near where they fell, assuming their bodies could be found at all. This made the emotional states of the movie’s characters come into much sharper focus, because it clearly showed why they were stuck emotionally, unable to move on after the war (“we’re ghosts of ourselves,” one of the characters says).  The movie’s ghost itself is real, and not just a trick of the mind, but what makes him visible is the unbearable psychological toll the war has taken on the living characters — a toll that frequently threatens to break them, but which they do not speak about.

I realized, in 1921, Britain was a nation that had not been able to complete the rites of passage for the ones they had lost.

Significant milestones in someone’s life (including their death), are generally dealt with by family, friends, and society as a whole by rites of passage.  Rites of passage are often divided into three stages: rites of separation, rites of transition, and rites of incorporation.

Rites of separation begin the process by severing the individual from their previous identity. Shaving of the hair when entering the military would be one of the more obvious examples.  Rites of transition are those that take place while the individual is neither one thing nor another.  In the case of death, this time would be between the bodily death of the individual and their social death.  Rites of incorporation, such as burial, complete the individual’s new identity.  Without rites of incorporation, the individual never truly finishes their journey through the rite of passage, nor does anyone else.  A husband may officially be listed as killed in action, but without a body to bury, his spouse remains, psychologically and even socially, in a liminal state — not quite wife, but not quite a widow, either.

Britain in 1921 had over three quarters of a million dead whose families and friends had not been able to steer their way through this rending rite of passage.  An entire nation reeled under the weight of the unincorporated dead, which kept the end of the war from being quite the celebration everyone had assumed it would be.  Nicolsen quotes one person as saying, “I think it [peacetime] will require more courage than anything that has gone before. …One will at last fully recognize that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war.”

Slowly, Britain stumbled through at least some healing.  The first anniversary of the end of hostilities was met with two minutes of silence across the entire country.  The second anniversary was used to place an unidentified soldier’s body in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.  By finally having at least one burial to stand for all the rest, the British began to find a way forward, out from underneath their “great silence.”