Deeply Grave Issues

Today’s guest post is by Clyde.

I collect graveyards.

Cemeteries are full of life, not human life, but plant and animal life. They reflect human history, culture, vanities, and foibles. People intend tombs and markers to enshrine power, success, or wealth, but over time such efforts fade to a sort of sad satire. Maybe that is only my viewpoint. Cemeteries are retreats, calm and restful, often set off in quiet and lonely places. Here on the prairie, they were usually placed on land of no farm use; thus they preserve land shapes and plants from the pioneer era.
I have visited hundreds in many states. Perhaps, for whatever reason I do not know, my most memorable, which I visited several times and more than once used as a place in which to compose a sermon, are the half-dozen ragged, rugged little graveyards scattered across the forest 30 miles or so north of Two Harbors. So much fun to pronounce the lyrical old Finnish names on the tombstones, once you have half-mastered the art. Only a Finn fully masters that arcane skill.

I will tell you about five cemeteries in particular.

Most Historic: Rural Lebannon, CT.
Although this one has strong competition from Salem, Massachusetts (both have those wonderful tall thin old stone tombstones like an Edward Gorey drawing), this one wins because it also has the tomb of Jonathan Trumbull, who was essentially secretary of war during the Revolution. Now inactive, the cemetery is hidden away down a lonesome rolling side road. A friend of mine has done a 30-year study of the growth of lichens on the tombstones and surrounding rock wall. The dates on the tombstones help him plot lichen growth.

The Welsh Section

Quirkiest:Across the Minnesota River from Nicollet.
This is a well-maintained active prairie cemetery surrounded by cornfields in a Welsh area. It’s peaceful to walk a secluded cemetery with the eternal sound of rustling cornstalks. In the older section of the cemetery all the names are Welsh, all except in one corner is a man named Zimmerman. My theory is that one night some Germans sneaked in and buried a relative.

Most Unusual:Point Hope, Alaska.
On the tundra outside of this Inupiat village, the most westerly point on the American continents, is a native cemetery, the fence of which is composed of whale ribs. But outside that fence, “outside the pale,” which is what that term means, are several lone graves. When a member of the tribe dies, the elders decide if the person is worthy of being buried within the ribs, or, sometimes, the person chooses not to be included.

The Obelisk

Most Poignant: On a bluff above the Minnesota River near Nicollet.
This still active but hard-to-find cemetery has a nice view overlooking the river valley; however, it is for one tombstone that I name this cemetery. The tombstone, a ten-foot tall obelisk, is a lesson on the fragility of children and the dangers of childbirth 100 years ago, common lessons in historic cemeteries. On one side the obelisk names a man who lived for about 70 years, dying in the 1920′s. On a second side it names a woman of the same last name who died in her early twenties in the 1880′s. A small unmarked stone lies seven feet out from the obelisk. On the next side is a second woman of the same last name who died two years later, again with a small stone seven feet out. On the third side is woman of the same last name who outlived the man by a few years; no small stone is present. Draw your own sad conclusion.

Most Frequently Visited: Calvary, Mankato.
A large very well-maintained cemetery on the wooded bluffs of
Mankato a mile from my house. I enjoy bike riding the paved roads of this cemetery in the early morning. The master caretakers who tend Calvary keep all the many trees trimmed to eight feet off the ground, which makes the early morning sun shinning under boughs onto the green grass an energizing mileau in which to ride, especially while listening to “Pipedreams.” Many a lesson can be learned here about human vanities and pretensions, both in the cemetery and among the million dollar homes which have been built next to it in the last decade. I am remind me that Thoreau said that our homes are just an doorstep to a hole in the ground.

I have, now that I think about it, only visited cemeteries in the daylight. John Muir, as a poor young man bumming around the US in the mid 1800′s, slept in cemeteries because then the police and other people would not bother him.

Would you sleep in a cemetery?

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90 thoughts on “Deeply Grave Issues”

  1. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    Nice piece Clyde. Thanks. I love cemeteries for the peace, quiet, history, and sense of sacred space. It always gives me a sense of history to visit the cemetery where my father and his family are buried. Lou and I will have our ashes there when the day comes.

    However, I must say that as much as I love the place, no, I would not sleep there. Too spooky.

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  2. Would I sleep in a cemetery? Probably not. No place to plug in my CPAP machine. Plus, it would be inconsiderate for me to disturb all the other sleepers with my snoring, and I think particularly of all the poor women who put up with four decades of sleeping with snoring husbands. They’ve earned a bit of peace.

    But as for where I might sleep after I’m dead, I’m less sure. Presumably I might have a new set of habits then.

    Thanks for the fun insights, Clyde. When researching my book about my parents, my dad and I explored cemeteries around Ottumwa, Iowa. We found the final resting place for his old friend Jinks, who had been about one-eighth African-American. Jinks was buried in a corner of the cemetery where all the nearby names sounded African-American to me, although we couldn’t be sure.

    I admire your cemetery photography, Clyde. I’ll send you a couple of shots I took in one. If your old email address is unchanged.

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      1. So far as I know by default WordPress only allows text and links in the replies. I could be wrong, though…(and there may be a plug-in for WordPress that allows images – but I’m guessing that it is not a default option b/c of the server space it would begin to take up over time…)

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      2. Anna, you are probably right. I’ve thought, too, that many hosts of WordPress blog sites might prefer to have control over images. It sure is simpler to run a blog site where only the host gets to post photos, as there are emotions and issues related to posting images.

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  3. Very nice post, Clyde. I too am fascinated by graveyards and have visited many. Would I sleep in one? I don’t see why not, though I have no plans to do so anytime soon.

    On my last visit to Stubbekøbing, the small town where I lived till I was 11 years old, I visited the graveyard where my grandma and lots of other people I knew are buried. I was saddened and dismayed to discover that most of the old tombstones, including my grandmother’s, had been replaced with newer stones with only the family name on them. Whole families had bee consolidated into one stone. Gone were their individual first names, the dates of their birth and death, and in some cases other information as well. These graves no longer give you any sense of history, and they certainly make it impossible for future generations to locate the burial places of their ancestors with any specificity. I think it’s one thing to change burial practices for economic and practical reasons for new graves, quite another to undo the historical evidence that has accumulated over the 600 years of that old town. What a pity.

    My own parents both chose to be buried in a “common” grave, i.e. a large lawn like area within a cemetery in Copenhagen where individual urns are interred with nothing to mark them except the bouquets of flowers strewn about in random places. I suppose they figured that with me living in the U.S., the burden of maintaining their graves would have fallen on my sister and her her kids and they wanted to avoid that.

    For myself, just scatter my ashes in the mighty Mississippi, eventually I’ll find my way home.

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      1. “Alas, poor Yorrick. I knew him well.”
        The point of that scene in which Hamlet sees a body being dug out of the ground by grave diggers, ostensibly set in Denmark, is that they did recycle graves in most of Europe then, especially England. So maybe that is what you observed.

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      2. Clyde, according to the cemetery employee I spoke to, the remains had not been removed. It was for ease of maintenance that the old grave stones had been replaced. I’m sure it was a matter of economics.

        As Steve pointed out, attitudes about death and burials have changed a lot over the years, and I suppose that it makes sense to simplify the long-term care of a grave yard. In this particular case, I was just shocked to see that the very headstones that had enabled one of my uncles to find a long line of ancestors’ graves were being systematically replaced with stones that would make such research impossible in the future.

        Interestingly, two of the few remaining old gravestones are for two English pilots shot down during WWII. These two graves are very close to my grandma’s grave, and I’ve seen them many times. Apparently there was a fund set up to fund maintenance of those two graves in perpetuity. http://www.airmen.dk/c093.htm

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      3. In the older parts of the the cemetary my mother’s family is in, many of the old marble stones have fallen over. They were made in segments-a base, an oblisk and then a finial. Both of my great-grandparents’ stones have now toppled and for whatever reason, I have taken the finials and put them in my garden. I figure they are as much mine as anyone’s, and no one else really cares.

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  4. i have visited graveyards a couple of times and do find them interesting peceful reflective. a couple that come to mind are the one where frank lloyd wright is buried in spring green wisconsin. it is tucked into a side hill with an upright piece of limestone standing with a tribute and a name. it is one of maybe 100 stones on a little cul de sac of a graveyard. it was rainy and green and felt very cozy the day i was there. i remember a story by robert fulgham about choosing his site where he would spend eternity looking out over the horizon. interesting perspective i would not have come up with i enjoyed the graveyards in ireland where the age and charachter of the markers are incredible. the jewish cemetary in pruage is a tourist attraction where the graves are stacked one on top of the other and stones set like dominos in a eerie parrallell to the way the dead were stacked like cordwood.

    would i sleep in a grave yard? sure. i think the fact that john muir noticed no one would mess with him if he slept there is great. i would not have thought of that. if i were hoboing my way acrooss the country and found a true bulletproof for nit being interupted in my sleep you can be sure i would sleep in a graveyard. every night. fun stuff clyde. thanks for the interesting morning thoughts.
    i had a spot picked in the canadian rockies to spread my ashes but my life has taken a couple of corners there and it would be a little selfish to have my ashes spread in a spot that was meaningful only to me. i will think about that too

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  5. i phoned my mother yesterday and she was particularly cheerful and talkative. She stated she had been finalizing her and my father’s obits, and choosing the photographs for the paper and funeral programs. She has also indicated who is to play what instruments and sing what songs and what she wants in the funeral lunches. “Now you won’t have to worry about doing it” she informed me, as chipper as could be. She and my dad will be buried in the cemetery in Luverne next to their infant son. They already have the stone up just waiting for the final dates to be carved in. When it first went up they had the wrong birth year for my mother, making her a year older than she is. She insisted it be corrected. I don’t know if they had to replace the whole stone or if they could correct it right there in the cemetery. I suppose I could snooze in a cemetery. Didn’t Neil Gaiman write a book about a girl who lives in a cemetery and is raised by ghosts.

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    1. The date on my maternal grandmother’s tombstone has her being born 2 years earlier than she was. That stone was put up in the 1940′s when my grandfather died, Grandma died in 1981, so for about 40 years, she went every week she could to place flowers from the garden on the family graves, and would see her own. Memento mori, indeed.

      I also have a great aunt and uncle who have had their stone placed for a couple of decades now. My great aunt took us to see it once (when someone asks, “would you like to see our tombstone?” really, you have to say “yes”). It is a very modern stone with a picture of the two of them in a boat fishing. It also has a vase for flowers. The day we went, there was a bouquet of silk geraniums in the vase. “Oh look,” said my great aunt, “someone brought us flowers, how nice!”

      If it were one of the cemetaries I’ve grown up knowing and visiting relatives I never met, sure.

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    2. Renee, I love it that your mother and father are taking care of such details themselves. Good for them.

      When my mother was dying of cancer, my sister and I sat down with her one evening to write down some facts about her life, her likes and dislikes, and to get her information about what she wanted in the way of music, etc. for her funeral. It amazed me how lighthearted the conversation was and how many laughs we shared that evening.

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      1. Jane, we are at my daughter’s in Evan for three days babysitting. this is a very Danish area. No one in either of my daughter’s churches has a name ending in son but many in sen. Just had a knock at the door to borrow the church key to show the church to their Danish visitors and then they are going out to the cemeteries.
        The whole group, Americans and Danes, had those little Danish noses.

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      2. Not all, but of the many Danes I have met through my daughter one of the features I often see are small noses, not the wide big round things my German relatives all have. One of the Chinese slang terms for westerners translates as Big Noses.

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  6. I spent a lot of my childhood in graveyards, nursing homes and hospitals; not only do I have a snapshot of me as a 4-year-old posed beside my great-great-grandmother’s tombstone, but my dad continued the grand Victorian tradition of taking final photos of a person in the casket at the viewing (which my family had instead of a wake, alas). I’d have more trouble over the spiders and lumpy ground than the neighbors were I to camp out in a cemetary.

    I’m sure a lot of people over the years have decided I’m morbid, but as you can guess, I learned at an early age that everyone dies whether we want them to or not. It’s vital to get down to work and deal with it, rather than waste time denying and avoiding the subject, or covering it up with pink blusher, cherubs and insipid pop songs. Death is important business–sometimes funny, sometimes gruesome, sometimes banal, and sometimes profound.

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    1. You’re absolutely right, CG, death is important business, and one that many western cultures doesn’t deal with very well. I didn’t see a dead person until I was 21 years old, and not because I didn’t know anybody who had died.

      Having been to numerous American visitations and funerals over the years, I’m intrigued by the American custom of applying make-up to the deceased.

      I went to college with the son of a very well known and wealthy family from Chicago. He told about a cocktail party they had held at his father’s mansion when his sister-in-law died. She, dressed in a cocktail dress and high heeled shoes, had been propped up in a sofa so she could partake in the festivities. He swore it was the truth.

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    2. My Mom tells the story of being newly married, and living on the farm with her in-laws. They had all boys so Mom was the daughter his Mom never had. And they got along well. Dad’s Grandmother also lived with them and as she got ill and died, Mom helped out alot with her. At that time the wake was at the house and someone had to sit up with the body during the night. Mom did that; helped brush her hair, helped get her dressed and she always says that’s when she learned dead people aren’t anything to be afraid of.
      My Mother-in-law had a couple instances of being ‘visited’ by spirits. Definitely an interesting topic.

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      1. I have a three friends and former parishioners, all very down-to-earth rational folks, feet firmly in the real world, who had night time voice visits from the deceased, in two cases their child. All three are convinced it was a real message, not something they imagined. All visits were very reassuring and left them in peace at a hard time. Such things science says it can explain, but since science never asks why but only how, then we still do not know.

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      2. PJ and Clyde – there are 2, maybe 3 books by a twin cities forensic pathologist about this very topic, Janet Amatuzio, who had so many people tell her of encounters that she couldn’t remain silent. Very well done: the one I’ve read is Forever Ours: Real Stories of Immortality and Living from a Forensic Pathologist , and another is Beyond Knowing….

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  7. Morning!

    My wife and I both enjoy cemeteries. They’re fun to walk around in and read the names and see the different stones.
    In my Township there are three old rural cemeteries; two of which the Township maintains. (And I mean that loosely; we have the grass mowed in them.) The third was adopted by a small church and they take care of that one.
    I guess maybe I could sleep in one if there was a comfortable spot and I didn’t have that small rock in my back or under my head…

    My mother-in-law passed a while ago. She’d been ill but she didn’t want to discuss anything about her death. So we didn’t do any pre-planning. Her husband had passed over a few years before so the stone was there and in the church cemetery.

    Death shouldn’t be as morbid as some people make it out to be. My favorites quotes regarding life and death are from the movie ‘Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium’:
    -”Light bulbs die, my sweet. I will depart.”
    -”All stories, even the ones we love, must eventually come to an end and when they do, it’s only an opportunity for another story to begin. “

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  8. HI, All – thanks, Clyde for the interesting tour of your favorite cemeteries! Hub LOVES them also and i go along because i like to stories the stones tell. my brother and i were just talking cemeteries yesterday on the phone. he said that in Louisiana there has been a spate of grave-robbing for gold teeth. gosh.
    Steve and i will be cremated unless the U of M takes us for cadaver lab (and then will cremate us, i am sure)
    i don’t like sleeping outside, so no prejudice against cemeteries – just like my bed.
    WOT: off to trim those hooves. little Juju is in day 3 of her weaning and is such a trooper. i made a pen inside and outside, so that she can’t get to her momma, and i think she quite likes having her own space (and food – and doesn’t have to fight over it). fried Janet said it’s about time Juju was weaned – she should be weaned before her first prom for sure. that’s coming in late November. :-)

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    1. Hope the trip was good. A report, or maybe I missed it. My fall head has my attention skills fuzzed out to something past vagueness. My daughter has a friend whose 20-something son has a strange brain disorder. The two halves of his brain do not connect at all. He has a degree, in theater, but really cannot work. His disorder has no name so he calls it ADOP, which means Attention Deficit, Oh, Pretty!!

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  9. Got the pix, Steve. Thanks. The Calvary cemetery has many figures of that sort. It is a Catholic cemetery, with a chapel in the middle, several very weathered old high-standing markers, and a few overdone above ground tombs. It has paved roads all through it. Wonderful bike riding.
    How many cemeteries do you want me to talk about, or moreso how many tombstones?
    As a pastor I lived so many funeral and graveside stories, almost all uplifting stories, some of which I have told on here. I sort of specialized in funerals.
    I expected more comment on the whale ribs. Inside are large wooden Russian Orthodox style crosses, which they still use despite being protestant. My father-in-law is buried in the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Minneapolis, full of interesting tombstones.The setting of that Port Hope cemetery out on the tundra (actually right there is sand built up from the sea now a mile or more away, thus allowing them to dig easily, but the tundra is a few hundred yards away) is as forlorn and spiritual a feel as I have ever had in a cemetery, nothing in sight on that flat ground but the village a mile away, the tundra, the sandy ground up tho the sea, and then the sea.

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  10. I have actually been in a cemetery at night, in Elmira New York, to see Mark Twain’s grave. How could I not visit his grave, but I only had the chance at night. So I saw it in the rental car headlights, which was pointless. Without seeing the full setting, I did not see it.
    Would I sleep in a graveyard? No, but not quite out of any fear. I have trouble with sleep and falling to sleep, so any noise would wire me a bit and then make it harder to sleep. If anything did wake me up, and I wake up easily, I would wake up in panic. Sort of the spooky issue and sort of not.

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  11. My dad used to be occasionally forced to drive a hearse for a funeral home in Ames. (How, you might ask, can anyone force anyone to drive a hearse? His boss made him. It’s a long story!) So among his many stories, Dad had stories about funerals. I’ve never told this one, and I have no verification for it. But Dad swore it was true.

    There were two old Irish drunks living in a nearby town (Nevada, Jacque) who acquired the habit of slipping into the wakes of people they didn’t know because they enjoyed the free booze. They ended up in a long, boozy wake for a fellow who was a hunchback (which, of course, they didn’t know). The mortician had been able to do a nice job on the deceased’s face, but the body wouldn’t lie flat because of that hump. So the mortician fastened a rope to the torso and pulled it way down into the cushions and tied it to the bottom of the casket. At night when the drunks were feeling no pain and not much else, they were hovering around the corpse pretending to work off their grief. The rope let go and the corpse suddenly sat up.

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    1. At my alcoholic f-i-l’s funeral home visitation, three of his former drinking bodies showed up drunk and in loud voices kept saying “That Willie was really a drunk.”

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    2. Those two rapscallions remind me of the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn. They slip into a funeral and pretend to know the dead man as part of a con they are working on the relatives. Huck describes all of this clearly, including the con men’s heartfelt speech about grieving for their recently “diseased” friend! It is one of the better word jokes in the book.

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    3. I should make it clear that my wife and her sister thought it was funny, in part because Willie used to tell them what awful drunks these guys were. It is odd, is it not,how drunks deplore drunks?

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  12. Graves in English churches are interesting-some in the walls, some under the floors. I have a 5 foot long brass rubbing that I did of a 1300′s era bishop from a little church in the village of Highham Ferrers, near Cambridge. He is a pretty glum looking fellow with beautiful deatil on his robes. The dog at his feet indicates that he died at home in bed.

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  13. My wife and I both love a good cemetary. I have yet to get my black & white film (yes, film…yay!) developed from the shots I took at the Cemetaria in Venice a few weeks ago but I’m thinking that I got some nice shots. When visiting San Francisco, we had to take the BART down to the ‘cemetary city’ of Colma. I got a very stern talking-to by an official at Pere Lachaise in Paris for using a tripod on the sidewalk.

    Probably the best graveyard story I’ve heard happened to my brother when we were living in the small town of Sandstone. My brother and his buddy were about 8 years old and were walking back home after dark. My brother’s buddy had a flashlight that worked intermittently and, in true Scooby Doo fashion, they decided to take a short cut that took them through a marshy area and the local cemetary.
    With the flashlight going out regularly, the only consistent light came from the moon but the swamp fog rising from the marsh and gently wafting into the graveyard obscured the ground. As they were walking among the gravestones, the flashlight cut out again. There was a yelp as my brother’s buddy tripped and fell through the mist…into an open grave.
    Fortunately, there was no coffin, so he landed on dirt and wasn’t hurt. The fall also got the flashlight to work again. As he swung the beam upward to find a handhold, the light fell on the headstone…carved with his own surname!
    The story behind the story was that his grandmother had passed away a few days before and the funeral was scheduled for the next day. But, as you can imagine, he scrambled out of that hole and made it back home in record time.

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  14. This all makes me want to re-read “Stiff” (subtitled “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”) by Mary Roach. She includes some interesting discussions about how the living deal with the dead…

    As has been mentioned, by desire or ability to sleep in a graveyard has more to do with my so-so feelings about camping than the location itself. Though, as my grandfather pointed out, there is some lovely property my family owns with a great view of the lake (when my grandpa bought plots at Lakewood Cemetery – in a part of the cemetery that does, indeed, look out towards Lake Calhoun, he joked about finally buying some lakefront property…wholly out of character for this very practical man). It’s a little too close to 36th street for good camping, but up the hill from the family plots might not be too bad.

    Love the photo with the whale bones – the counterpoint of the bones and the crosses is haunting and lovely.

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  15. When I was editing my magazine I bought some stories by an up-and-coming writer from Missouri. Michael was such a good writer I once offered him a job working with me, but he had higher ambitions and went on to be internationally famous as the best writer about excellent old shotguns. He and I hunted together several times, and for complicated reasons the hunts were haunted by misunderstandings and mistakes. I later had the unalloyed pleasure of hosting Michael at our cabin for a ruffed grouse hunt.

    One of the stories Michael sold me was a reflective piece about hunting grouse and encountering a tiny family cemetery in the woods. A headstone indicated that Laura was buried there after a life of only 13 years. It was a well-written piece, with just a dash of sentiment about Laura’s short life.

    Yesterday I was cruising the internet when I was shocked to find obituary notices for my old friend.

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  16. Thanks for a good topic, Clyde, and I like “ragged, rugged little graveyards” in places like Roland, Iowa; Winona… I would sleep in a cemetary if, as mentioned above, I could be comfortable… maybe in my old VW van. Gotta go, will finish later.

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    1. I think I’d opt for having a roof of some sort overhead too – if not a vehicle, maybe a tent.

      I like the story about the stray Zimmerman. Them damn Germans.

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  17. Two years ago I was photographing old cemetery statuary, mostly in Saint Paul’s Oakland Cemetery (I used to live across the street from it). I became acquainted with issues about the economics of cemeteries. In short, things are tough for many cemeteries.

    Many attitudes about death have been changing. Cremation is increasingly popular. Fewer people choose to pay for full funerals and cemetery plots. Families have become dispersed by economic forces, so fewer people are around to attend burial sites. And people are no longer as concerned as they once were for the kind of immortality represented by a handsome grave site.

    For Oakland Cemetery, the salvation has come in the form of heavy patronage from the Hmong community. Their attitudes about death and bereavement are close to those of 19th century America. Many Hmong families seem to feel that a handsome grave marker is a crucial statement of family pride.

    Many Hmong grave markers, I noted, include the usual data plus an etched photo of the deceased that probably is possible through some kind of computerized etching process. Those photo images are a nice addition to the stark facts of a person’s life.

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    1. Minnesota law requires cemeteries to establish perpetual care funds. Not sure how it all works, but it is to keep private funeral folks from building and then abandoning cemeteries. Some of course go bankrupt or never did get a fund. The cemeteries up around Brimson and Toimi are “ragged and rugged” but they are maintained to some level, such as mowing, cleaning, maintaining the fences (why?), etc. They are active. I did internments there.
      The historic cemetery in CT is fully maintained by a state perpetual care fund for the many such cemeteries they have. Wish I had taken a pix to share. Dale really wanted me to have one.
      Do not assume cremation is cheaper. I know from first-hand experience it is not. It is about the same cost as a regular casket, vault, etc. But I just hear there is a new method.
      cheaper way to burn the body.

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    2. My sister-in-law, Tien, is Vietnamese and Buddhist. Her family came here from Vietnam in the 1980s. Her father speaks very little English and her mother none at all. When Tien was pregnant with their first child her parents hosted a baby shower for her in their small home in Minneapolis. I was admiring some figurines on a bookshelf-like thing and out of curiosity I touched a small, lovely figurine. My brother came over and admonished me, telling me that I was messing with the family shrine. I turned around and they were staring quietly at me. It wasn’t an accusing or disapproving look, but I felt really bad. Stupid American. As the years have gone by, I’ve gotten to know them as simply the kindest, most tolerant and self-effacing people imaginable. Family means everything to them.
      (Note: there should be a carat above the “e” in Tien’s name. Does anyone know how to achieve that?)

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      1. On a Mac you can hold down the Alt key and type the letter i, then type the vowel you want and it will have a caret over it. Don’t know if that works in Windows, but I’m guessing probably not. Is it the caret you want, or an acute accent mark?

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    3. A wonderful book that anyone who has any interaction with Hmong people could benefit from reading is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It explains a lot of Hmong cultural beliefs and practices, including their funeral rites. Well written, non-judgmental and very informative.

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  18. One of the places I lived in Moscow was an apartment building adjacent to the only church in Moscow allowed to ring it’s church bells. This was supposedly allowed, so the Communists could truthfully say that churches weren’t forbidden to ring their bells. At any rate, when I heard the bells on a weekday, I knew it signaled a funeral.

    On one such occasion, I walked across the street with Hans and Thomas, the two little Danish boys I was taking care of at the time, to see what a Russian funeral was like. It was a beautiful old church with lots of icons but no pews. The deceased was an old woman with her babushka tied under her chin and wearing a flannel night gown; her casket was a plain old pine box. Most of the people in attendance were old women and a few old men. The ceremony had lots of singing and praying, and alternating between standing and kneeling. The whole thing probably lasted about half an hour, whereupon the men proceeded to nail the lid on the coffin with rusty old nails. The coffin was then placed in a horse-drawn carriage and taken away.

    The boys, 5 and 7 at the time, were fascinated and we talked a lot about what we had just seen. Hans, the older of the two, was especially concerned about how they could be sure the old woman was really dead. I reassured him as best I could, but I could tell he was not convinced.

    A few days later, on a cold November morning with snow lightly falling, Hans was standing at the kitchen window looking down on the street below. Another horse-drawn carriage was making it’s way to the church when he suddenly exclaimed: “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about her.” I asked him what he meant by that and he replied: “Well, if she wasn’t dead already, she’ll have frozen to death by the time they get to the church; she’s only wearing a night gown.”

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  19. Marshalltown, IA’s cemetary has a little duckpond. When I was in high school, there was a wonderful old tree (oak, maple?) with a huge limb that went out over the water. My best friend came down there sometimes to study after school in the spring or fall, taking turns who got the limb and who would sit on the grass. And until my mom moved here last month, she would often do her walk there, down the paths and around the pond. One year a pelican couple showed up, and she and my dad would come regularly to check up on them.

    Thanks for the real and virtual pictures of lots of cemetaries, Babooners. I’m making a list of the ones I’d like to visit.

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  20. I’m in the minority here today. I always feel a little nervous and anxious in cemeteries. I get the feeling that I’m being watched or observed. I’m afraid to walk between the headstones because I don’t want to step on anyone. I know that it’s silly to feel that way, but I can’t help it. I like to believe that I’m fine with death and the symbols and ceremonies surrounding it, but the truth is that I’m pretty uncomfortable about it. I would give sleeping in a cemetery a try but I doubt I’d get any actual sleep.

    Some rural cemeteries are intriguing. They look lonely and lost. Some of the tombstones are very old and I can only imagine what the lives of the people must have been like. Sometimes I’m afraid that a careless farmer might get too close with a plow…

    One interesting tomb is in Maple Lawn Cemetery in Faribault. It is the grave of Taopi, a Mdewakanton Dakota who befriended Bishop Henry Whipple and became Christian. During the Sioux Uprising of 1862, Taopi protected the white settlers. After the uprising was over, the white people demanded death or complete removal of all the Dakota people from this area. They insisted that Taopi be included in the extermination. Taopi had this to say about it: “I hear white men say they will kill me. If it is because the white man has the same law as the Indian– that when one of his people is killed another must die in his place, then tell them not to shoot me like a dog, but to send for me to go to the public square, and I will show them how a man can die.”

    Taopi managed to avoid the infamous mass hanging in Mankato with help from his friend Bishop Whipple. He went to live and work on Alexander Faribault’s farm and died in 1864.

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    1. I used to drive by a cemetery in St Paul where the caretakers lived on the grounds. I always enjoyed the irony of seeing the recycling at the curb. The caretakers had kids and I wondered if they brought their friends home very often.

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      1. When I was in elementary school, the very best slumber parties were always at the home of my friend, the morticians daughter. They lived in a grand old mansion that was in fact the funeral home in town. For slumber parties, we would all put our sleeping bags on the floor of the large room where the larger services were held and played games in the adjoining parlor.

        Halloween parties were not to be missed, and the town was small enough that I believe all the girls in class were invited.

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    2. I have to look that up.
      The caretakers of the Calvary cemetery here in Mankato live at the back of the grounds, on their private land, which now is only accessible through the grounds (used to be a back road up the hill). It is a job being passed on to the next generation.
      I have not seen their recycling out, but I picture them giving directions and how many people who go there stop and ask themselves if they are going to drive in at night?

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  21. On the topic of cultural differences relating to rituals around death, I can recommend a Japanese film called Departures. Very beautiful and poignant film. It’s available through Netflix.

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  22. Thank you for your responses today, and compliments. I had the idea for this topic a long time ago but thought it might be a little strange.

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    1. Not strange at all, Clyde. I too love the picture of the whale bone fence I’d love to see that place. Have never been to Alaska, but can imagine that some places are very similar to parts of Greenland where I spent 9 months.

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  23. I buried my Mama and I buried my Pa,
    They sleep up the street beside the pretty brick wall.
    I bring ‘em flowers about every day,
    but I just gotta cry when I think what they’d say.
    If they could see how the sun’s settin’ fast
    And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
    Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
    But hold on to your lover, ’cause your heart’s bound to die.
    Go on now and say goodbye to my town, to my town.
    I can see the sun has gone down on my town, on my town,
    Goodnight.
    Goodnight.

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  24. If someone offered me a million dollars I still wouldn’t sleep in a cemetery. I’d take a short nap for a grand though. (In my car with the doors locked.)

    Lovely pics and writing, Clyde. Wonderful stories, thoughts and impressions, all.

    Why do vampires make lousy bloggers?
    Because they can’t reflect.

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    1. How many vampire bloggers does it take to change a light bulb?
      None – hey, just leave the damn light off, will ya?

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  25. I don’t know Linda’s embedding trick, so this link will have to do. Dedicated to Clyde and his wife:

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