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Posts Tagged ‘morbid musings’

I was walking through East Cleveland Township Cemetery, where my great-great uncle is buried, and I saw a number of tombstones for people who had lived 90 or more years, and I started to think about my great-grandmother.

I had the opportunity to know my maternal grandmother’s mother as a child. When I was born, I actually had three great-grandmothers still living, but by the time I was old enough to remember, there was just Great Grandma Cook. She was born in 1901 and lived to be 88 or 89.

I loved history, even as a kid. I can remember the weary look on the Gettysburg tour guide’s face when I was on a 3rd grade trip, asking if anyone else on the bus knew the answer to his latest question, other than the brown-haired, freckled girl in the front row. (The answers to those two questions were “no” and “General George Meade,” in case you’re interested.) My love of history caused me to look upon Great Grandma with awe. I could read about the history of the 20th century, but she had lived it.

I have reflected many times, both then and now, about all the things that my great grandmother had the opportunity to see and hear about – the wars, the technological innovations, the civil rights movements. She got married the same year that the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution. That same year, she buried a brother who died of tuberculosis, surely not knowing the advancements in medicine that would render such deaths rare within her lifetime. She raised a family through the Great Depression and lived through World War II just down the street from an Army base. After her husband passed away, she moved into her daughter’s home and helped raise her granddaughters, making quilts for them to take to college where they participated in the social justice movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She dealt firsthand with the social mores of the time when her granddaughter became pregnant while still single twice – giving one child up for adoption but raising the second child as a single mother. And in between the big events I know touched her life, there must have been a million small ones – did she hear about the students at Kent State on May 4, 1970, and worry about her granddaughter participating in an anti-war protest at her own college? Did she read about the East Ohio Gas explosion and wonder about people she had known in Cleveland when she lived there a few years before? It is difficult to imagine all the things she would have seen in her 88 or so years of life, especially with as much technology and change as there was in the 20th century. So many of the tombstones for people who live to be my great-grandmother’s age or older contain nothing but the name, birth year, and death year – how little of that long life they tell…

There is no photograph for this post. My great-grandparents are buried in Parsippany, New Jersey, and I have never been to their grave.

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I’ve been working so much on preparations for my vacation that I haven’t been to a cemetery to take photographs in a few weeks, and I’m really starting to miss it. For a while, I was going to a cemetery just about every weekend, even if it was just for an hour or two. The obvious reason to go so often is material – if I’m going to get this blog through the snowy northeast Ohio winter with regular posts, I have to go out and get photographs now. I’ll still be able to take photographs of large sculptures in the snow, but often the ice and snow will obscure inscriptions. But I also go for peace and quiet. I know that cities in some places can be dangerous (and there are a few around here I don’t visit alone), but I’ve never had any problems in a cemetery. Mostly I go and quietly wander around the stones, watching the birds and squirrels and admiring the stillness that I don’t find in many other places.

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Looking through my photographs from Old Hudson Township Burying Ground, I found tombstones for classmates.  You may recall that the graveyard adjoins the campus of Western Reserve Academy.

If you look carefully, you can read the words “Our Classmate” above Jacob Harshman’s name.  As far as I can see, he died in 1861.

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Tunis V. Wilson died in 1849, less than a year after he graduated with the Class of 1848. The tombstone doesn’t tell you why he was buried by his alma mater. In the 19th century it was much more common for young men and women who completed advanced education to remain at those institutions as instructors after completing their studies. Maybe that is why he sleeps so close to the Academy.

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Finally, we have the detailed stones for Flavel Loomis, native of New York state.  Loomis died while enrolled at the school at the age of 22, and, his gravestone informs us, his classmates buried him and provided his memorial.

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We don’t live in a culture where dying while in school or within a year or two of completing school is a common occurrence. Yet, before the days of our advanced medical technology, it happened frequently. It is striking how different the world of a hundred or so years ago was.

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I had a fabulous tour guide when I went to Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. (Unfortunately, all the photographs from this trip are currently lost. If I ever find the CD, I’ll use them for blog posts.) I cannot remember this man’s name. As he lead us around a small section of that massive Victorian garden cemetery, he stopped periodically at the monuments and asked “What was the family trying to tell you?” He would proceed to describe in loving detail the symbolism of every carving, the choice of every word, the grief and affection etched in stone. He articulated the families’ love and sorrow with such passion that he nearly brought me to tears more than once. He taught me that cemeteries honor the dead, but are also there for the living. The monuments chosen for the then-recently deceased reach out across time, beyond the lifetimes of their patrons and makers, and speak to those who will listen to what they have to say about the person (usually) buried nearby. Most of the messages are simple, some more detailed or unusual, but all contain a plea for remembrance. This guide honored that request and cherished it. By the time we met him, he had devoted years of his life to remembering those who had gone before him. He spoke of them like old friends, and he inspired me.

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