Category Archives: articles

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!


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.

A few thoughts on happiness

OK, so I hate that Pharrell song “Happy” that the folks on the radio won’t stop playing.  But happiness is important.  This article lists several ways the lives of people who report being happy differ from those who don’t.  Spoiler alert: go outside, take a hike, do volunteer work, live in the moment.  Also, find some meaning in what you do.  The article says,

“People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations,” wrote Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a University of California Riverside professor of psychology, in her book The How of Happiness. “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”

Though this may seem like an odd topic for a blog called Cemetery Chick, I think it’s important to look at death-related issues with an eye to appreciating the life we’re living now.  It’s one reason I’ve had my students contemplate what they’d like in their obituaries someday — not to make them consider dying, but to make them think about how they want to live.  What do they want to accomplish?  What would they like others to remember about them?

What would you like others to remember about you?

Please share!

We’re trying to get the word around about Valhalla’s Memorial Day service this Saturday, May 24. Share a link to this post ( ) or cut and paste into your own site. Thanks!


Finding the Lost
by Martha Kneib

When Susan Ing first looked at the place she calls the Hall of Lost Souls, she was dumbfounded. “The room just kept getting bigger. I mean, it’s big. It just kept growing.” On either side of her, lining the walls of a vault underneath the mausoleum at Valhalla Funeral Chapel, Crematory, and Cemetery on St. Charles Rock Road, were an estimated 2000-2500 boxes containing cremains that had never been claimed.

Undaunted, Susan pressed forward. She had two goals: to catalog every box, and to get those among them who were veterans a military burial. That was going to be, to put it mildly, a big job. It took months for Susan and two helpers, Kathie English and Elaine Sheahan, to document everything, and sometimes weeks to get the go-ahead for burial from Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. But, in the end, Susan prevailed. She will see twenty-two of the formerly unclaimed boxes of remains interred at Jefferson Barracks in June. To her, being present at their interment is important. “I have to represent these guys. If no family shows up, it’s me.”

For Susan, a lifelong devotee of cemeteries and their history, donating her time to the unclaimed, and especially to the veterans, is a source of great satisfaction. “My take-away moment? The fact that twenty-two men are going to be properly buried where they belong.” Two of those men, she discovered, were Civil War veterans. All twenty-two will be honored at a Memorial Day service at Valhalla on May 24, 2014, and will then be transferred to Jefferson Barracks for their final interment.

For their part, Valhalla’s staff are equally invested in the Memorial Day service. Randy Singer, Funeral Director at Valhalla, said, “I am so thankful that the founders of Valhalla saw fit to safeguard these cremated remains, so this day could happen, even after all these years.”

Working with Susan has been Don Gerspach, the State Coordinator for Missouri for the Missing in America Project. The goal of the project is to find and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of America’s veterans. Over 1900 formerly forgotten veterans have received a military burial since the project began in 2007. Gerspach, who has been involved since 2008, is responsible for coordinating between volunteers and Veterans Affairs, though providing information to veterans’ organizations and the general public is what Gerspach sees as his most important role. The more people that know of the project, the more likely family members can be found.

Reforging those family connections, however, does not always happen. In September of 2013, two sets of cremains were interred at Jefferson Barracks due to Susan’s diligence. One of them, Frank Lemon Berryhill, had no family present, and so it was Susan who received the flag from the Honor Guard. She intends to pass the flag along should anyone in the family come forward.

Susan also ensures that everyone she finds is listed as “unclaimed cremains” on Find A Grave so that there’s a chance someone in the family might stumble across the information while doing genealogy online. Often, family members have no idea that their parents, or grandparents, never picked up a relative’s remains post-cremation. Susan says most family members she hears from are at least two generations removed from the deceased, and are shocked to discover that someone in their family has been sitting in a box for decades without a burial.

One thing Susan has discovered is that being forgotten is a fate that cuts across all social and class boundaries. One might think that the affluent would never leave their relatives behind, but Susan matched one of the unclaimed boxes at Valhalla to the Busch family.

Susan has no plans to stop trying to connect the dead with the living. “There’s so many people who can’t find grandpa and don’t realize he’s been sitting on a shelf for fifty years.”

One family she found, who currently reside in Oregon, have made plans to visit St. Louis in the fall of 2014 to claim a relative left behind at Valhalla. That’s just one more person, long forgotten, that Susan has helped restore to their family. Just one more of the lost becoming found, and going home.

To learn more about the Missing in America Project, check out their website at

The quest for the lost

Did you know that the remains of thousands of people who are cremated go unclaimed?  That creamatoria, funeral homes, and cemeteries often have shelves full of boxes awaiting family members to pick them up, and that these boxes may have been there for years, or decades?

I had no idea until I read an essay by Thomas Lynch in his book The Undertaking.  Lynch, a funeral director, realized his funeral home was storing a closet full of boxes of cremains.  Fortunately for him, he worked in a small town, and so locating a family member and encouraging him or her to come pick up Aunt Thelma wasn’t that difficult.

Most places have a much more difficult time connecting the dead with the living, once the dead have been forgotten.

One organization that wants to make a difference to many of the people who remain in their boxed earthly limbo is the Missing in America Project.  This organization, which went nationwide in 2007, is endeavoring to find the remains of forgotten veterans, and to provide them with the burial with full military honors they deserve.

To date, the organization has found and buried over 1900 veterans.

Check out their website to see how you can help make sure all of America’s veterans are located and properly honored.


For the living

Cemeteries are certainly places for the dead, but I believe, as I think this article makes clear, they are also places for the living.  If you want a cemetery to remain a place that is beautiful, peaceful, and worth placing your loved ones, it should be a part of, and embraced by, the community.  People who value the cemetery will be the ones who cherish it, protect it, and maintain it.  And, in return, the green space, the wildlife, and the peacefulness of the area will help maintain the visitors, too.

Why not an egg hunt?

Memorials in the 21st century

Sometimes, it seems like we’ve had things like email and Facebook forever.  But the internet got off the ground a bare 25 years ago.  In that time, the importance of online communities has grown exponentially in people’s lives.

And in their deaths as well.

People memorialize their loved ones all the time on websites — either their own, or websites set up specifically to feature memorials.  But you can also memorialize someone inside the online game you played with that person.

Take this guy, for example: Gamer uses Minecraft to pay tribute to his late wife.  Though the article mentions that something similar happened in World of Warcraft, this remains unusual.  But as online communities grow over time, I expect this trend to continue on into the future.