To be unique like everyone else

The National Funeral Directors Association states on their website that baby boomers see funerals as “a valuable part of the grieving process and are seeking ways to make them meaningful.”  And unique: everyone these days wants to be an individual in death as much as they were in life.

Personally, I like that.  While I can appreciate the regimented order of a military cemetery, the haphazard spread of markers of different materials, fonts, and symbols is much more interesting, and much more inviting.  This particular marker, in a cemetery in Arrowtown on the South Island of New Zealand, shows a lovely uniqueness.  I’ve never seen a marker of this particular green stone, and the way it has been left rough is quite attractive.

I’m not a baby boomer, but I have a preference for uniqueness as well.  What about you?  What sort of marker would you prefer (assuming you want one at all)?


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?

Waving to Lady Liberty

Last Friday, we visited Green-Wood Cemetery, a 478-acre cemetery in Brooklyn.  It was founded in 1838 and, within thirty years, became a significant tourist attraction.  I could spend days there looking at all the various angels and columns and interesting inscriptions.  As it was, we had only about 1 1/2 hours, so we couldn’t see much.

Besides tours of the cemetery, other events, such as plays, are offered there.  While we were in New York, the weather was rainy enough in the evenings that the productions were canceled.  And what play were they offering at Green-Wood last week?  If you guessed Our Town, you were right.

Sadly, the rain and clouds meant the morning we were there was hazy and overcast, so our pictures are not that impressive.  Tempus fugit, and so does good light and propitious weather for the photographer.

If you have time while you are in New York to visit Green-Wood Cemetery, I would highly recommend it.  Spend more than 1 1/2 hours there if you can — it’s beautiful, even on a dreary overcast day.  And sweetly, many of the sculptures face northwest so that they, like this little angel, can spend eternity with an unobstructed view of Lower Manhattan, including the Statue of Liberty.


Pets in the casket

A friend of my mother’s wants to have her three dogs (who have been cremated and are in urns) placed in the casket with her when she is interred.  The cemetery where her parents are located told her they wouldn’t allow it — though I don’t know how they’d know unless they decided to do a casket-search before burial. Anyway, this friend asked my mother if she could find out if the cemetery where my mother’s relatives are buried would allow cremated pets in the casket. Their reaction: “Sure, no problem.” Subsequently, this friend bought three lots in the cemetery, one for herself and two for her parents, whom she intends to move from where they are now.

All because of her dogs.

I have a feeling that’s what’s going on in this picture. At first, I thought the people had paid to have their Pomeranian “Oly” on the stone with them the same way people have their favorite sports logos or hobbies engraved on their markers.  But I’m betting, if we were to open up one of those caskets, we’d find a little urn with Oly’s cremains inside.

If that’s so, then this cemetery clearly doesn’t mind a pet resting eternally with his or her owner. Which I think is sweet.


An accidental veteran


So on Memorial Day, my husband took a picture of this stone, thinking he was taking a picture of the marker of a veteran.

As it turned out, not so much, actually.

If you look carefully, this person’s name was Ida, and she died at the age of five weeks.  Her heartbroken parents have had engraved on her marker (admittedly in German): “Her life was a moment, a spring dream, an earthly happiness.”

I don’t begrudge her the flag.


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.


150 years and still serving

Arlington National Cemetery turned 150 years old this week.  The cemetery holds over 300,000 graves and adds roughly 25 graves per day.  It is, of course, the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as being the final resting place of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, and thousands of others, including:

Ruby Bradley, most decorated woman in U.S. military history

Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom, astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 fire

Juliet Opie Hopkins, known as the Florence Nightingale of the South

Mark Matthews, last Buffalo Soldier

Francis Gary Powers, U2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union

Thomas Selfridge, first person to die in the crash of a powered aircraft

Charles Young, first African-American colonel in the U.S. Army

150 Years at Arlington

Oblique messages from the past

I was wandering through a cemetery when I spotted this little gem.  Three words, “More Than Conquerors,” sitting all by themselves on a stone.  On the surface, it seems very martial in tone, but I realized it was taken from one of the hymns we used to sing during our church services — Thine is the Glory.  Perhaps you grew up singing that one as well.

The last verse goes like this:

No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life;
life is naught without thee; aid us in our strife;
make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love:
bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above. 

The lyrics were written by Edmond Budry (1854-1932), and clearly, if you see the entire verse, the “conquerors” part is about defeating death.  That may or may not be clear to the visitor who sees the stone if they don’t know the hymn, though I suspect everyone in this person’s family, their friends, and their acquaintances, knew it.

Currently, we sing an updated version in our church.  Lyrics that sound like the church is advocating conquest have been edited out. The words now are:

Am I still frightened? One whom I adore,
Jesus, lives again, gives peace forevermore.

Jesus is my victory, life and strength and head;
Jesus is my glory, nothing shall I dread.

In the future, will it be obvious to anyone where these three words came from?  I wonder.