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June 09, 2011

Dead Serious


By Elaine Viets

St. Louis cemeteries celebrate the drama of death with weeping willows, mournful monuments and mausoleums that have stained glass windows their occupants never see. My hometown is a semi-southern city. Death is personal and loss is commemorated with permanent reminders.

My grandmother fed my deadly fascination by taking me for walks in the old city cemeteries. These Disneylands for the dead have fountains and lakes with swans. I wandered through Victorian tombstones bearing porcelain photos of the dead and admired weeping angels.

I also pondered the big questions: Why am I here? When will I go? Why would anyone have an Odd Fellows tombstone? I was relieved there was no Order of Nerds. Otherwise, I might wind up planted under a stone shaped like a pocket protector.

Mom was angry at Grandma for taking me on a walk among the tombstones and confronted her. "That girl will turn out warped," she said. Bellefontaine

"The dead don’t hurt you – the living do," Grandma snapped back.

We continued our cemetery walks, enjoying the added spice of my mother’s disapproval.

Both women were right – I did turn out warped, but I still take an occasional mournful graveyard walk.

When I moved to South Florida, the cemeteries I saw were shockingly drab.

I wrote about this in "Pumped for Murder." In my latest Dead-End Job mystery. Helen Hawthorne and her husband Phil have started their private eye agency. They were checking the death dates of Mark Behr, a possible murder victim.

"Peaceful Rest Cemetery was flat, hot and treeless – more like a doormat for hell than a place of remembrance," I wrote. "Helen didn’t like South Florida graveyards, especially this one. Many of its cemeteries didn’t even have tombstones, just flat plaques set flush with the ground so the grass could be easily trimmed. Eternal rest had to be convenient for the endless lawn mowing.

"Helen found Mark’s grave shockingly spare: a flat metal plaque with his name and death dates next to a stingy bunch of artificial flowers.

" ‘This is depressing,’ Helen said as she surveyed the grim plot.

" ‘It’s supposed to be depressing,’ Phil said. ‘It’s a cemetery.’

Pumped_for_Murder " ‘Some cemeteries have real tombstones that say something like Beloved Husband or Resting with Our Savior,’ she said. ‘People put flowers, toys or balloons on the graves. Look at this. I’ve seen more personal markers for water mains. At least Mark could have a granite tombstone.’

" ‘Helen, we live in a hurricane zone,’ Phil said. ‘Windstorms topple tombstones.’

" ‘But this flat – ‘ Helen struggled for the right word – ‘nothing is like Mark never lived.’ "

Now this grave wrong has been righted – in true Florida style.

Leslie Nielsen, the comic star of "Airplane!" and "Naked Gun," lived in Fort Lauderdale. The Canadian-American actor died there in November at age 84. Maybe I should say "passed." Nielsen loved whoopee cushions and flatulence jokes.   220px-Leslie_Nielsen

He couldn’t resist one for his tombstone.

I understand the temptation for the last word. When I was a newspaper columnist, I joked that I wanted "Out of print" as my epitaph.

Now that I write mysteries, that line doesn’t seem so funny.

Leslie is buried in Fort Lauderdale’s Evergreen Cemetery, where the city’s founders are laid to rest. He couldn’t resist this final joke on his tombstone:

"Let ’er rip."

That’s funny when it’s tossed off. But not set in granite.



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My favorite cemetery is a small family graveyard on a reservation in Minnesota. We went to bury an old friend, an ex-military antiwar hero. After the service we drove for miles on a dirt road into the forest. When we stopped we walked further through the woods, until I knew I'd never find my way out if left alone. While the pall bearers dug the grave and buried our friend, people would alternately stand and watch silently and walk around paying respect to the dead. They would talk and pray the old way. The new way happened back in town. The graves were dotted with metal veterans markers and little American flags. Some had fresh packs of cigarettes. Others had cans of beer. A hat. Gum. And there were notes. We sang the old songs as the last of the dirt covered him. And put money in a coffee can for his family.

My favorite tombstone is a giant, thinly-disguised penis in a cemetery in Bethlehem, at the bottom of, I think, the street that Liberty is on. My sister once had herself photographed hugging it, although it is at least twice her height. I was not involved in that photograph in any way, other than viewing it well after it was taken. I think I had my girlfriend/wife/ex-wife take my picture next to it, and it used to be in an album somewhere. She didn't believe my description, until she saw it. If there's a story about it, perhaps Sarah knows it.

I must confess that I enjoy walking through cemeteries. Weird, I know. I love the history there. The Yellow Fever victims buried in Savannah's city cemetery. The haunting statue of little Gracie Watson in Savannah's Bonaventure cemetery. The freaky skeleton-carved Puritan tombstones in Boston's Old Granary Burying Ground. And the simple Old West cemetery in Crested Butte, CO. These are just a few of my favorites.

Re Leslie Nielsen: yes, as in life, so in death.

But did he have the blue-cheese-stuffed baked marmot carved at the top of the stone? Sergeant Buck wouldn't settle for less.

"Mourn porn" is the name for those giant er, male monuments and barely dressed weeping angels, Josh.
What a touching and meaningful farewell, Reine.
The country song "Seven Bridges" is about the trip to Hank Williams' grave down a long back road.

I love cemeteries, especially those with beautiful statues, elaborate vaults, and large stone tables and benches where families used to picnic when they visited their dead relatives. Loudon Cemetery in Baltimore is huge and designed in a lovely park setting with rolling hills and mature trees. It has some amazing memorials to the dead, including an array of beautiful stone angels. One of my favorites shows a young female angel sitting on a marble block with an open book in her lap, reading for eternity. Heaven! ;-) I also love strolling through really old cemeteries, like those in England, and seeing how tombstone symbolism has changed over time.

Don't forget that in the Victorian era, the concept of cemeteries as recreational sites came about. Lovely winding paths, fountains, and convenient benches were added amongst the tombstones, and people (including those who had no dear ones interred there) were encouraged to take picnics and ponder their mortality. Or something like that.

I adore cemeteries, and did even before I became a genealogist. Probably because (as my mother told me) I learned to walk in one, no doubt lurching from stone to stone, all of which were taller than I was. I collect photos of weird examples, including molded metal markers (they hold up remarkably well, but they never quite caught on).

And I will admit to fudging the dates on my grandmother's tombstone, to honor the birth year she chose, rather than the real one.

The spookiest graveyard in the world, to me, is The Alamo. Just stand there for a moment, and think about what happened there, why it happened, and what it represents.

Contrary to myth, the Mexican Army practically *begged* the Americans to surrender with no bloodshed. Just walk away, no harm, no foul. As we know, the Americans chose to stand and fight, and a genuine American Legend was born.

Stand there for a moment, and ask yourself if you would have stayed. I've never come up with an answer for myself....

My family is big on maintaining flowers in the family cemetery, so I think of them as gardens. It's so sad to see the ones where a mower comes along and whacks everything down.

"Mourn porn"--I love that!

When it comes to a glorious, useless fight, I'm with Falstaff, William: "What is courage? Who had it? He who died on Wednesday."
Sheila, the bench by his grave has another favorite Nielen line, "Sit down whenever you can."

We do have some beautiful cemeteries. And if you are Jewish and in St. Louis, there is a good chance one of my cousins will be taking care of you one day. Two cousins manage three of the five Jewish Cemeteries here. Jim took over for his cousin who is now buried a short walk from his last office.

The Odd Fellows and some of the other fraternal organizations started to provide funeral services for their members. Sort of the pre-pre need business. After learning more about the Spanish Flu Pandemic, I realized why one cemetery has so many graves from 1920-23. Apparently, the Flu spread well in the St. Louis west end.

There is one tomb stone I have tried researching, and will find the answer two one day. There are three uprights with a single crossbar. There are three different names and they all died in 1923. The crossbar has a shipping logo ans something about serving together. I have a feeling it is from a river accident.

How serious do we take death in St. Louis? How about a tour of tombstones? http://www.bellefontainecemetery.org/grounds/architecture/

Love this post! I went and found an image of Leslie Nielsen's tombstone for my husband. Two years ago, we tried to find where my Grandfather-in-law was buried in Highgate Cemetery in London... found some of the famous ones, but not granddad. We had a general idea of the location, but the place was so overgrown with old growth trees, vines and brush that for f25, the managers offered to send in someone with a machete to clear space for us. We declined that time, but might go have it done later on. The fave cemetery we take visitors to is Swan Point cemetery in Providence where H.P. Lovecraft is buried. They have some lovely old monuments there.

I used to collect odd epigraphs. Here are two:

"Here below at final ease
Lies all that's left of Samuel Pease.
Pease ain't here -- just his pod --
His soul's shelled out to meet his God."

I'm told this one's in Ireland:
"Sacred to the memory of
Captain Anthony Wedgwood
Accidentally shot by his gamekeeper
Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

I happened to be at a cemetery in a small local town for a ceremony to celebrate the restoration of a grave marker for an early settler (they keep the original broken and worn gravestone flat on the grave and put a new copy in the original position) and someone pointed to a lovely grassy area and said it was the Potter's Field where the victims of a long-ago cholera epidemic that decimated the town were buried. Massive disease outbreaks are so blessedly rare for most of us that it is startling when you run across local evidence of one in the past.

I like this epitaph, Margaret:
Owen Moore has gone away,
Owen Moore than he can pay.

And what about that epitaph you see in British cemeteries?
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you will be be.
Remember man, eternity.

Talk about killjoy,

Agreed, Elaine...:) Agreed....

When I was a kid we visited Cemeteries all the time to pay respect to our departed family members.
Since I was so young I was not nervous but I seem to grasp the significance of the visits.
Of course, we had season changes where I lived in Canada and I remember collecting oak leaves and acorns to take home.
Elaine, I just finished reading PUMPED FOR MURDER and cannot wait to see the further adventures of Helen.
I loved this story. Thank you.

I try to avoid funerals and cemeteries, though friends in Tennessee do have a lovely family plot that if pretty and serene.
You've reminded me of a favorite Am. Lit. extra credit assignment, after reading Ben Franklin's, I encouraged students who wanted to write their own metaphorical epitaphs.

The Epitaph of Young Benjamin Franklin

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

I loved Leslie Nielsen's tombstone! Very appropriate for such a funny guy.

I love cemetaries, too. I find it oddly peacefull and rich in tradition and history. I really hate the flat markers. I realize it does reduce costs, but the tombstone is the last chance a person has to be creative. Elaine, I think you should put that on your stone, maybe have a renewed interest in your books, lol.

Most of my family is buried in the Lutheran cemetary here. It is nice to be able to see all of my relatives, some a few generations ago, in one place.

My roommate at FSU was in this weird cult kind of group that used to rub tombstones in the old cemetery in Tallahassee.
They were rolled up in the top of her dorm closet. It kind of spooked me out a tad.
One full moon night while she was out...er...rubbing I hung crosses on the windows.
So there I am trying to study with my back to the closets and a cold wind came whooshing, and I mean out of nowhere, whooshing through the room.
Her closet door blew open and her rubbings came tumbling out to the floor.
I was so freaked out I couldn't breathe or get out of there fast enough. I wanted to run or scream or something but I just stood there frozen in the moment.
She walked in the door. I pointed at the rolls of paper at my feet and she laughed (she was a theatre major) a Lauren Bacall throaty laugh and said the group was a bunch of fakers pretending to be witches and warlocks and not to worry.
Cemeteries make me nervous to this day.

Brrr. A terrific but chilling story, Xena.
Here's an interesting fact about Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. It has the last bit of virgin prairie left in the area.

When I was an infant my grandfather became the sexton (caretaker/manager) of the Catholic cemetery in my hometown, which came with a house where he and Grandma lived. My aunts and an uncle or two also lived there before they grew up and moved to their own homes, and we had many family gatherings there for all my childhood. My cousins and I played in the woods, rolled down the hills, and collected cicada shells with my Boy Scout leader aunt, and all of us learned to drive on the curvy paths among the tree-shaded graves. There was also a grotto, complete with a mysteriously running spring, cool and shady. I loved that place.

Across the street from Grandma and Grandpa's house was the other town cemetery, and when I was in high school we moved to a house on the other side of it. Not far from the entrance on our side was a lovely, shady pond, complete with fountain, where I was often to be found, reading or just thinking. When the world was too much it was my outdoor refuge, a place where I could sit alone (or with a boyfriend once or twice), and no one really knew I was there.

One of the coolest places on our farm is the pioneer cemetery, which has a dozen or so graves, some dating back as far as 1830. It's on the breezy slope of a hill, under a little copse of trees, and surrounded by fields of wildflowers and wild blackberry vines. If it weren't for the ticks I'd set a bench there and have picnics. When we first bought the place three years ago an old gentleman asked if he could come and clear the graves and tend them, but he hasn't called in a long time, and no one has been there in quite awhile. I'm wondering if he's joined his ancestors.

Cemeteries to me are serene and peaceful, not the scare-making places of fiction.

We love cemeteries in my part of the world, Elaine. You have to obtain a permit to do grave rubbings, but these Puritan graves are quite and attraction. There's an old cemetery around the corner from my house in Salem that all the dogs have adopted. Soon after The Lace Reader came out, a local newspaper took a photo of me standing next to one of the graves. A few weeks later, there was a piece of black lace draped over that same grave and another photographer snapped a picture of it and sent it to me. It was a foggy day. The shot is moody and beautiful if a bit eerie.

My favorite cemetery is in Marblehead where I grew up. It's probably the best seaside location in town. I go there often because most of my family is there.

Coming back later to read the comments, but just want to pop in now to say the oddest tombstones I've ever seen are those for members of the fraternal organization called Woodmen of the World. Their gravestones were either tree stumps or made to look like them. Here's an sample:


There is a a lovely little pioneer cemetery near St. Charles, Mo., Karen, with an iron arch over the entrance.
Mary, old Ben had style.

I work at one of the largest cemeteries in St. Louis as the archivist. I have photographed every monument, marker and mausoleum of the 87,000 souls who rest there.

After I met Elaine in Pittsfield, Illinois last year, I suggested that the cemetery would be the perfect setting for her next Dead End job books--I had no idea she feels the same about cemeteries as I do!!

I love old cemeteries because they just reek of history. I get chills when I think of the Old Granary Burial Ground in Boston (I think that's its name), just amazing. I like walking through military cemeteries, and somehow honoring those who died in war. One of my favorite cemeteries is in Yosemite National Park. It is small, but chronicles the lives of those who settled, lived and died there. Too many young children, sadly.

Elaine, I have to tell you that the epitaph you quoted has a slight variation:

"As I am now, so must you be./ Prepare for death and follow me," to which some smart aleck supposedly added a hand-lettered to sign to that stone: "To follow you / I'm not content. / How do I know/ Which way you went?"

I like cemeteries.

Most of my family (maternal side) is buried, high on a hill, overlooking the Susquehanna River in a little town called Herndon. If I were to check, it probably goes back to the 1700's. But that is where my brother is, near our grandparents and all of grandma's family. Dad tends his grave, and keeps it decorated with flowers and toys (sigh...).

Years ago, when househunting for dad, one of the homes actually had it's own cemetery! Way old, and not tended. I actually wanted that house, but dad not so much. I probably didn't mind since the townhouse I was living in abutted against a large cemetery.

And discussing St. Louis cemeteries, my step-uncle is buried in a mass grave there. He was in the military on an emergency transport home when the plane blew up on departure from N. Africa. It was long before me, so I never met him.

I'm not much for visiting cemeteries to "visit" my loved ones - I just simply do not believe that that's where my parents, grandparents, etc, are. My memories of them are in my heart. However, as a lover of history I do like visiting historical cemeteries or the older sections of large cemeteries.

About thirty or so years ago, one of my sisters and our mom and I were walking through the cemetery on Memorial Day after going to my dad's grave, and we ended up, simply by accident, in the part of the cemetery where my dad's grandparents and other long-gone (before he was born) relatives were buried. Among other relatives, we found the graves of one of my grandmother's cousins and the cousin's family. The entire family died in the flu epidemic (it might have been the Spanish flu that someone else mentioned earlier), including both parents and all the children, including infant triplets. An entire family wiped out in a few days - how sad. I think they died around 1918 or 1919, but I'm not sure. I had heard my grandmother talking about this when I was younger but the sadness of it never hit me until I actually saw the graves.

When I was in college I lived in an apartment building across the street from a cemetery. My room-mates and I used to watch - please don't ask me why! - funeral processions entering the cemetery. One morning, one of my room-mates and I were observing a grieving family gathered around a grave, when a couple of REALLY cute pallbearers looked across the street at us, caught our eyes, and waved! (We kind of wished we'd encountered them under other circumstances! Ah, young people!)

Brunonia, you reminded me of how I used to ride my bike over to Waterside Cemetery to visit my childhood friend Tommy Roche. I'd look across to Salem and think of the ancestors there. I would ride back to The Old Town and take a cut over The Old Burial Hill, a place I frequently visited in my dreams. I just looked at the photos to try and remember why I loved it so much, to recall what attracted me there, because I had since learned that, to take a cut to go back down over to Front Street, I had to go way out of my way. When I saw the photos on the following link, I was stunned by the view - the beautiful view that I can't recall. All I remember is the grass and the stones, the vision of the blurry ground as I ran or biked . . . maybe my friends' faces, a child's grave, visions of a place I loved and feared, enjoyed and ran away from. Some of my ancestors are there too, although I didn't know it then. I remembered it so clearly, but I didn't have the place quite right, not at all. My feelings stirred it all up in the giant memory sink hole.

Elaine, our cemetery has no arch, no fence, no nuthin'. Just some hickory trees. But our friend's farm has two cemeteries and they commissioned an ironmonger to fix the wrought iron fences they unearthed, and to fashion lovely gates to finish them. They also transplanted iris and lilies to the sites, after digging up, righting and realigning headstones and footstones.

Kentucky has a group that archives and records data about cemeteries and where or if they are maintained, and they had someone come out to tell them about theirs. They think some of the stones mark the graves of slaves, who are positioned behind the landowners so that they are taken to heaven after the owners are. Which I find so silly, but that was their belief.

I always like Ben Franklin. He was such a pragmatist, wasn't he?

Hi, Connie. I remember you from Pittsfield.
Margaret, hilarious variation on that epitaph.
And yes, Nancy, the Woodmen gravemarkers -- (stone trees? -- are amazing.
Deb, your story about the pallbearers is proof life goes on.
Karen, did you know Ben wrote an essay called "Fart Proudly"? The nuns never taught that essay at school.

Since I also had nuns up till 12th grade, it's no surprise I never heard of it! Too funny.

There's also a wonderful essay about young men should seek older mistresses -- the "Cougar Club" has apparently been around a while . . .

I was on the red carpet at the 2005 Palm Beach International Film Festival in the Boca Raton Resort & Hotel when I met Leslie. After doing a series of ponderous, pontificating reviews, Leslie approached me. I asked my one serious pretentious question and I noted that he did not bring his "magic machine."

That was the only cue he needed. While Bai Ling talked about the importance of art & commerce, Leslie "Let 'er rip!"

Contrary to myth, the Mexican Army practically *begged* the Americans to surrender with no bloodshed. Just walk away, no harm, no foul. As we know, the Americans chose to stand and fight, and a genuine American Legend was born.

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