A love of cemeteries

Mar 2, 2011 by

A love of cemeteries

My whole life I’ve loved cemeteries. Some people find that morbid. I find it fascinating and life-affirming. I’ve been known to pull off the road while driving just to check out a cemetery we encounter. Reading random headstones fires the imagination. I ran across John T. Dana’s headstone in a small cemetery in Massachusetts in 2002, two hundred years after his death at age 34: “Cut down at so early a period in the midst of his commercial concerns. Let it teach thee reader to set thy affections on things above.” Interesting, huh?

Nearby was another, “In memory of Capt. Elisha Allen who was inhumanly murdered by Samuel Frost July 16, 1793 aged 48 years.” There’s definitely a story behind that one.

The saddest plot I encountered that day was where six siblings, aged one to fifteen all died on different days between February 7 and March 9, 1786. Their parents were buried next to them 30 years later.

Though I’ll walk through any cemetery to check out random headstones my primary interest is in locating the graves of my own ancestors. Earlier that same summer of 2002 I flew to the Midwest in order to visit cemeteries in many small communities in Iowa and Illinois. I located my grandfather, great grandparents, 2x great grandmother, and 3x great grandparents and numerous distant cousins, aunts and uncles.

My writing partner, Sharon Morgan, also loves cemeteries. Having this interest in common is a definite plus for writing Gather at the Table together. We’re in the early stages of planning a significant road trip this summer that we hope will take us through the South and Midwest where we’ll research relatives in courthouses and, no doubt, try to find them in cemeteries.

Several months ago Sharon and I were in Chicago and visited Oak Woods Cemetery. My 3x Great Uncle, Calvin DeWolf is buried there. Not far from him we also found the burial site of several distant relatives of Sharon’s. She wasn’t aware of it previously but simply asked the woman at the counter in the Oak Woods office to check some names. Sometimes it is that easy. Often times it isn’t.

Though there is nothing on Calvin’s simple headstone to indicate it, he was an active abolitionist. He helped found the Anti-Slavery Society of Illinois in 1839 and was indicted in 1858 for aiding in the escape of a fugitive slave. I pointed out to Sharon my gratification in finding such a noble ancestor, since my first book was all about the slave-traders in the family.

“What is it about us that we desire to have noble ancestors?” I asked.

“Your ancestors inform your feelings about yourself,” she replied

That’s exactly it. We inherit physical traits from our forebears. And we inherit much more: belief systems, attitudes, and outlooks on life. Learning as much about them as we can allows us to be discerning about what to preserve and what to discard among our many inheritances.

I ran across a wonderful, sad, and ultimately hopeful article the other day about a man showing his young daughter where their ancestors are buried. It’s titled “Neglected graves home to ‘invisible dead.” I hope you are moved by this article as much as I was.

“… I’m trying to keep it in your memory the way granddaddy kept it in mine so it won’t be forgotten.”

“How long did they bury our kin here?” his daughter asks.

“They started in the early 1800s, baby. They worked our people to death here. They were slaves. And probably about 1905 is when they stopped burying in this area.“

I believe that part of the reason Sharon and I love traipsing through cemeteries is so we can share our history with our grandchildren so that the stories of their ancestors, and the stories of this nation’s past that have too often been buried and made invisible, will live in their memories.


Thomas Norman DeWolf is the author of Inheriting the Trade



  1. Hey, I would’ve like to have met old Bill!!! He sounds like he probably asked for that epitaph to be written, which probably means old Bill did a whole heck of a lot more good than he probably ever knew……. <3

  2. Brooke; One of my favorite cemeteties in all the world is the one at Virginia City Nevada. Years ago Donna and I took a day off from the casino where we wer both employed and spent the day in the “Bucket of Blood” Saloon, saw Mark Twain’s desk and did all of the tourist things one does but the highlight of the day was browsing through the cemetery. One headstone caught my eye as I read…”Here lies old Bill, He didn’t do no good but he weren’t too bad neither…” I believe the date was 1867…

  3. The connection between genealogy and cemeteries is huge! What a thrill it has been to find the resting places of people I’ve discovered through genealogy searches. And NOT finding someone (like my GG Grandfather, who drowned in the Mississippi River in 1852) fuels a passion for further research.

  4. Decoration Day circa 1950s… growing up in Eastern Nebraska back in the 50s we would load up the car with flowers from our yard (mostly peonies), fried chicken, and drive about 15 miles to the tiny little farm town where my Mom grew up and spend half the day cleaning and “decorating” the graves of her family. then spend the rest of the day with her Aunts and cousins eating and talking. probably helped ignite my ongoing genealogy hobby!

  5. Wow! Leave town for one day and look what happens. I return to this amazing conversation! What a blessing to read all your thoughts in reaction to my column and about your connections/interactions with cemeteries. If any of you want to “friend” me on Facebook to stay in touch here, I’ll gladly accept. Best wishes, one and all.

  6. Dear Glenda, as Jeanne, so eloquently stated, loss is a very personal experience. I, personally, do celebrate the peace and beauty of the cemetery experience specially because loss has been such a significant part of my life. So I too, like Caroll and John have the memories of making the cemetery and experiences around it comfortable and pleasant for my children, to help them understand that death and separation from those we love and care for and those that have lived before us, while never easy, is not a frightening experience. In fact, it is a natural extension of the living of our life.

  7. Jeanne Raines via Facebook

    Glenda, I’ve not lost anyone close, but I do have friends & family who do, indeed, have picnics there. The journey of grief is such an individual one for each of us, isn’t it? I am sorry for the loss that you’ve had.

  8. Has anyone actually lost someone really close? I find them fabulous too but visiting special places doesn’t really bring on a “picnic” feeling….

  9. Don, We have family cemetery in Missouri. As a child I remember my Mom, dad and all our extended family going to clean mow etc. Everyone brought lots of yummy food, fried chicken and all the trimmings. It was a day of work and celebration. And of course lots of tales about the relatives who had “left this world” Relatives are still keeping up the tradition. It seemed like a family reunion with the ones still around and the memories of those past.

  10. To Vicki : Love that!!!!! oxoxo!!! <3
    To Johnny : Yes, love, please do!!! 😀

  11. Brooke I was raised across the street from a cemetery and spent many enjoyable hours reading the headstones, some of which went back more than one hundred years then and a few, very few to the days of Ventura’s formation as a city after Ventura split off of Santa Barbara County. I learned that the last person to be lynched in Ventura County was buried there. There was a beautiful marble spire and stand for an “Unknown Soldier” from world war I and other interesting things to read and do. Another was to watch the oriental families put out rice cakes on the graves of their loved ones in the “Oriental” section for observance of their holidays. Part of my 13th birthday party was a “treasure hunt” that included bringing something back from the cemetery. If you want to know more I’ll write about it in a story for MCJ…Love ya…JWSIII

  12. I know it is weird, but I feel almost drawn to some of them….past lives? Makes me wonder…

  13. Yes, Margaret, I’m born and raised in LA, you are so right about the huge ones that really give you a good walk and the peace of a park like environment, as well.

  14. Margaret Motheral via Facebook

    I love cemetaries too. I also go when I travel and used to take my daughters when they were little to play. They have inherited the love as young adult. I was so proud when one wrote me a postcard telling me she had visited the PAris cemetary because I had once told them about my visit there. When we visit we often go walking in them. there are some huge ones in LOs Angeles that give one a good walk. Just today I was in a bus and passed by the cemetary that has the family plot here in Philadelphia. Hadn’t seen it in quite awhile.

  15. How ’bout …. “throughout the 20th century”…. : D

  16. Dean Fancy via Facebook

    I think we took picnics in the old Unitarian Cemetary after Sunday School. Please, let’s call it late 20th century.

  17. Yes,Brooke.It is gorgeous.
    I believe it was in the early 20th century that it was a Sunday tradition of having a picnic in the cemetary where relatives were buried.

  18. To Caroll : I love the picnic story! That’s great! I’ve never been to Cave Hill, sounds really interesting to stroll through. : )
    To Michelle : How lovely a thought, Michelle…. : )

  19. That’s wonderful, Don! I bet it’s beautiful!

  20. I live next to a very old cemetary…It’s wonderful.

  21. Jeanne Raines via Facebook

    me three! old cemeteries.

  22. I know, me too!!! Crazy about ’em!!!

  23. Yikes! Thanks for the catch, Dottie!

  24. Dottie

    Extremely nice article – makes me almost want to change my mind about being cremated and scattered instead of embalmed and buried. One thing, though. I’ve always spelled cemeteries with 4 Es. Did your spell check not catch it? Or do you live in Britain where their spellings so often differ from ours? (Sorry, but I’m a bit anal about spelling, grammar, and punctuation)

  25. Donna Morask

    I understand the fascination and desire to have an understanding of who we are, based on who we came from. I have a 1/2 sister 11 years older that I’ve never been able to find. Ancestry always was a mystery to my parents, therefore me. I have learned a few things but nothing that I have felt where;
    “Your ancestors inform your feelings about yourself,”… in any case your search, your wonderment and your desire to know and share your history will be very beneficial and can potentially lead to finding out who they are. Nice article.