By Barbara E. Ochterski
People tend to avoid cemeteries or seem uncomfortable, even fearful, when it comes to visiting final resting places. Not me.
For the past several years, for my own enjoyment, I have photographed historic, endearing sometimes comic and thought-provoking gravestones. Often I find on the still legible older stones, lovely designs, chiseled images with careful artisanship and attention to detail. That may be why tombstone rubbing is a popular pastime and groups such as the Association for Gravestone Studies exist.
Early favorites of mine were two simple, tall markers stand side by side in Durham, Conn. These gravestones that told the story of young love lost and her bereft spouse’s response. Shortly after that visit, I seriously took up wandering through cemeteries, hunting and photographing interesting grave markers. Since that first encounter, whenever we travel, my husband and I take the opportunity to find the oldest cemetery in the area and pay a visit.
You can learn a lot about being human in a cemetery. In today’s modern cemeteries, there are gravestones that are intensely personal in their depiction of hobbies, beloved homes and pets. These are touchingly etched to help family and visitors recall not only who the deceased was, but also more important, what their lives and loves were.
I recall the gravestone of a young man, buried at Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg, whose marker is a sculpted reminder of his passion for sports. Etched on one side of the striking monument is the figure of a baseball player and on the reverse side is the figure of a hockey player. I never met the boy, but as a parent, I feel connected to his family in their loss.
Not all stories carved on tombstones are sad. A few carry odd statements, written by the deceased or perhaps by the survivors. For example, on one Connecticut grave is the statement “in women’s lib she found a cause, her final liberation beyond how the sexes adjust to top or bottom.” The meaning is certainly obscure. There are so many stories.
Some gravestones, by the omission of detail, signify a deeper mystery. Recently, we visited a cemetery in Canon City, Colo., also the site of a former maximum security prison. In one lonely corner, surrounded by the serene setting of the Rockies, lie 600 graves of unclaimed inmate bodies, their lives marked only by rusted metal markers stating “CSP inmate.” In other cemeteries, there are graves with simply a first name – “Little Nell” – a child who lived only seven short years. May they rest in peace.
In the heart of Buffalo we have beautiful Forest Lawn Cemetery – resting place for the famous and infamous. Simply drive or walk through the peaceful surroundings and you are reminded of countless defenders of our country, business proprietors, mothers and their children. Particularly touching for me are, actual signatures carved into the stone – truly signing off on this life. Is there a mark more personally defining than one’s signature?
If you take the time of visit at a cemetery, wander around a little, not to ponder the obvious reminder of human mortality, but for the pleasure of connecting with our common roots, all of those women and men who made their mark on the world in simple and grand ways. What are their stories?
Maybe you can adopt a grave. I have. It is the marker for little Florcia Dera. Her pretty image decorates her grave since she died in 1927, and her face reminds me of my mother’s face as a child. I pause, remember my mother, this little girl and her loving family, long since deceased. I give thanks for their lives and mine.
Barbara E. Ochterski enjoys the connections forged by exploring cemeteries.