Meet taphophiles (cemetery lovers) Jennie and Dianne as they discuss their love for cemeteries, talk cemetery history, and even share a bit of classic literature from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's the Ordinary, Extraordinary Cemetery! Where every death had a life, and every life had a story.
⚰️Sources for this episode include:
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice Told Tales: Chippings With A Chisel. Edited by Lindsay Todd Damon. vol. I, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1903, pp. 455-468.
Jennie: Welcome to the Ordinary, Extraordinary Cemetery where every death had a life, and every life had a story. My name is Jennie Johnson.
Dianne: Hello everyone. My name is Dianne Hartshorn.
Jennie: I wanted to start this podcast because I love cemeteries! I find them fascinating and beautiful, lonely and sometimes creepy, solemn, but also full of love and I can spend hours wandering through tombstones, reading epitaphs and admiring all the various forms of art that the living choose to represent their deceased loved ones.
Dianne: And for me cemeteries are almost the same thing, they’re like a sacred place to go visit. It seems like no matter, no matter what I may have going on in my life, when I go to the cemetery and I start reading people's headstones and seeing their spans of when they lived; just wondering what they went through and sort of like, concentrate on them, and it seems like all your troubles are forgotten.
Jennie: I love that. Forget all the troubles. Yes, love that! So the focus of our podcast is to be able to share stories of pioneer cemeteries and the people buried in them. We will be featuring cemeteries and stories from all over the US and hopefully, maybe one day from around the world as well.
Dianne: We’d like to include histories of cemeteries and the areas surrounding them, such as what was the major commerce in the area? What caused those areas to be settled? Why was that particular place chosen for the cemetery? And most importantly, feature stories of people buried in those cemeteries. We’re not necessarily looking for the famous people, but the everyday people who had moments in their lives that were interesting, exciting, or sometimes tragic. Those things that make each of us human.
Jennie: We will also be featuring guests who are more knowledgeable than ourselves about things like gravestone art and headstone carvings. And also gravestone maintenance and restoration.
Dianne: We will also share poetry and epitaphs. We hope this podcast will be something the most knowledgeable on cemeteries will enjoy as well as those who may know nothing about cemeteries other than that dead people are buried in them.
Jennie: We want to encourage those who may not visit cemeteries often to find one near them and explore it. Of course, we expect those who visit them to be respectful, to follow the rules posted on the gates, to not desecrate or steal the headstones or leave trash behind. But to walk through the cemetery looking at the headstones, enjoying the peace and beauty that was created as a final resting place for those we love, and to take photos if you wish but nothing else.
Dianne: We thought we’d kicked off the podcast with a very brief, but in no way complete history of cemeteries in general. Did you know that the word cemetery is derived from Greek and roughly translated means “sleeping place”. It is believed that cemeteries have been in use for more than fifteen thousand years. The oldest known cemetery is located in a cave in Morocco. There they found 34 bodies.
Jennie: And they think there might be more, they just haven’t found them yet. Around the 7th century, the church began to direct that burials should happen in consecrated ground. So this is the beginning of churchyards otherwise known as graveyards. And the distinction between cemeteries and graveyards is that a graveyard is typically on the same grounds as a church where cemeteries are land that was set aside specifically for the burial of the dead, but generally has no relation to a religious building or church. Although there are cemeteries that are specifically religious cemeteries such as a Jewish cemetery or a Catholic cemetery, but they're not attached to a church. This is particularly true in many European cities where you will find a lot of churches surrounded by headstones.
Dianne: Even in death, class distinctions were made. Wealthy nobility would have private crypts built to house their remains.Those of lower social class were buried in the ground and if the family could afford it a headstone or some other monument was provided. Often, the very poor were buried in pauper’s graves along with many others. This was usually in the case of pandemics or if a major accident had taken place in the community. Once the grave was full, it was covered over and left to be forgotten.
Jennie: During the 19th century graveyards stopped being used in favor of cemeteries. Much of this was due to the Industrial Revolution, the overcrowding of cities, and the spread of disease. In many places in Europe graveyards were actually outlawed because of sanitary reasons. Cemeteries were located on the outskirts of towns and cities where they could put the deceased to get the disease out of the towns. Churches ceased to be the caretakers of the interred and cemetery keepers were hired. These cemeteries were generally, but not always, nondenominational and just about anyone could be buried in them. However, many of them were still segregated by religion, class, or race.
Dianne: The nineteenth century then gave rise to what is known as a rural cemetery. Not only were they a place to bury the dead, but they were designed to be park-like. Oftentimes, the cemetery would have been the first park in the area. So they made it so it was very inviting for the living to walk through and enjoy the paths and stuff that were laid out. Picnicing at the gravesite of a loved one became a very popular pastime that lasted through the mid 20th century. One of the first and most famous landscaped cemeteries was the Père Lachaise in Paris. Many others quickly followed suit in England as well as in America.
Jennie: America's first landscape Cemetery was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1831, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased 72 acres of land for the creation of a rural cemetery and experimental garden. The cemetery was officially consecrated on September 24th,1831. The following excerpts were given in a speech by Joseph Story who was Mount Auburn's first president as well as an associate Supreme Court Justice and the dane professor of law at Harvard University. “My friends, the occasion which brings us together as much in it calculated to awaken our sensibilities and cast a solemnity over our thoughts. We are meant to consecrate these grounds exclusively to the service and repose of the dead. The duty is not new, for it has been performed for countless millions. The scenery is not new for the hill and the valley, the still, silent dell, and the deep forest have often been devoted to the same highest purpose. But we address feelings intelligible to all nations and common to all hearts.
Dianne: It is to the living mourner. To the parent weeping over his dear, dead child. To the husband dwelling in his own solitary desolation. To the widow whose heart is broken by untimely sorrow. To the friend who misses at every turn the presence of some kindred spirit. Thus its repositories of the dead caution us by their very silence of our own frail and transitory being. They instruct us in the true value of life and in its noble purposes, its duties and its destination. They spread around us in the reminiscences of the past, sources of pleasing through melancholy reflection.
Jennie: We dwell with pius fondness on the characters and virtues of the departed and as time interposes, it's growing distance between us and them. We gather up, with more solicitude, the broken fragments of memory and we leave into our very hearts the threads in their history. As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection whispering in our ears. We listen to the voice of their wisdom speaking in the depths of our souls. We shed our tears, but they are no longer the burning tears of agony. They relieve our drooping spirits. We return to the world and we feel ourselves purer and better and wiser from this communion with the dead.”
Dianne: America is full of cemeteries like Mount Auburn. It is also full of much smaller, simpler cemeteries due to the circumstances of the communities where they were built.America is also home to many Native American cultures and they have their own traditions for their dead. We hope to explore many of these traditions as well in this podcast.
Jennie: So Dianne, I was wondering if you remember the first time you visited a cemetery and realized that it was a place that you absolutely love to be?
Dianne: I was trying to think of this;. I was trying to recollect. I was very young at the time and I used to write,wrote. And so I wanted to be able to use authentic names to the time period. So, I grew up in Canon City, so my family would take me oftentimes up to Greenwood Pioneer Cemetery…
Jennie: That’s a great cemetery!
Dianne: Yes! And even as I got older and in high school, I had one friend and her and I shared a passion for cemeteries. And even when we would have boyfriend troubles or whatever, we would actually go and walk amongst the cemetery.
Jennie: I love it!
Dianne: She was the only one I could really share that passion with. People would think we were weird,
Jennie Right? I know, everybody's like, “you do what for fun?”
Jennie: Yes. We spend time in cemeteries. Yeah. We visited when I was a kid, my dad was in the Navy so we moved a lot when I was growing up, and my mom was very good about taking us to explore the new places that we were living and a lot of times that would include a cemetery, but the one I remember the most I think when I really started to fall in love with them, was in high school, There was one right across the street from our high school and we used to sometimes hang out in it, there would be group of kids and we would go hang out in the cemetery, but I can also remember times where I'd go by myself and just sort of walk around read epitaphs, read the names; and there weren't, I mean it was a small town in Nebraska, so there weren't like any super poetic epitaphs or anything written on any of them. It was mostly names and dates of birth and death and that kind of thing, but it was still fascinating and it made me think about who was buried there, and you know, what was their life like? As these pioneer farmers who came out and settled this land and started these farms and built these whole communities that didn't exist before they got there. So that used to kind of, still fascinates me, which is why I spend so much time in cemeteries. What is your favorite cemetery? And why Is it your favorite? I know that's always a hard question.
Dianne: Yeah, that was definitely a hard question. So I think, I had to think about this for a while. Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs for one, because I have volunteered there for the last 20 years doing historic events and restoration. So definitely that, but I think my favorite cemetery is, I had an opportunity back in 1983, to fly out to Charleston, South Carolina, and I was able to visit the Circular Congregational Church, and the church was across the street from the cemetery. It was the first time I had a chance to see the old, slate…
Dianne: tombstones that were carved with skeletons and many dated to the late 1680s and 1700’s, early 1700s. And at the time I didn’t realize how much history Charleston had played into the history of America.
Dianne: That’s where I really got interested in cemetery preservation and restoration. Realizing seeing these two and three hundred, at least two hundred year old headstones, just how important it is to preserve these for generations to come.
Jennie: That. Yeah. I think, one of my favorite cemeteries, and it’s at the top of my list, is the Burying Point in Salem, Massachusetts, and it’s just like that. It’s super old, it dates back to the 1600s. It has headstones in it of people related to the Salem witch trials. So none of the people who were accused of witchcraft themselves because they were not allowed to be buried in the cemetery, in consecrated ground, but one of the judges that was part of that is buried there as well as family members of some of the various accused. All of that’s there and that, I mean that was such a pivotal point in our country’s history. The witch trials and everything that went on with that and when they decided kind of how the judicial system was still following a very English way of doing things, and they were starting to realize that doesn’t always work. And so, there’s a lot of connections there. And you’re right, those headstones need to be preserved because that’s; I mean if you go to Europe, they have headstones that are even older…
Jennie: Because Europe’s been there forever, but as far as headstones and marked graves and things like that, that’s where they start in our country. I mean, the Native American burial grounds and stuff like that, they didn’t use headstones, and so you know, when we find those burial sites for them, they weren’t necessarily marked and we discovered them later. So I find it fascinating that we still have those really old ones and I think we should preserve them. And then my other one, so my second favorite cemetery, which, they’re really just a group of cemeteries, are the ones near Central City, Colorado. There’s six or seven of them kind of all grouped together in one area, and they all run into each other or they’re across the road from each other, and it’s because they just said this is where we’re going to just bury everybody. There’s the actual Central City Cemetery which is right next to the Knights of Pythias Cemetery ,but there’s also the Odd Fellows Cemetery, The Red Men Lodge, I think that’s the way they say it, Cemetery, the Catholic Cemetery, and there’s one other that’s right over there and I can’t remember the name of that one right off the top of my head, but they’re all like, just grouped together right there. At the time those cemeteries were formed, that land would have been stripped completely bare because they had cut down all surrounding timbers and everything to build the community and so it was very ugly. If you read all the descriptions written by people that lived there at the time it was ugly and bare and there was no vegetation and there were no trees. And now, there’s trees, there’s Aspen trees all over the place, and pine trees and all the different things. And there’s all this ground vegetation and during the summer there’s a ton of wild flowers that grow everywhere. And it’s actually very pretty and very peaceful because it's away from the highways, there’s no like, well you can hear some traffic, but you don’t hear a ton of it like you do sometimes in the city cemeteries and stuff, and I just love going up there. And the headstones are really interesting because that was a community where people came from all over the world. So you have different headstones in different languages there and traditions that they would have brought from their own countries that they put into their headstones. So I find that really fascinating. Which you don’t always see in other cemeteries.
Dianne: That’s like the cemetery up in, Evergreen Cemetery up in Leadville, It’s very much like that.
Jennie: Oh, see, I haven’t been there yet.
Dianne: You need to go. You need to go visit. It’s in almost, like the forest. It’s surrounded by pine trees so there’s not a lot of grass, except for maybe two areas that are set aside for the fraternal organization(s). The one is the Masonic, and I’m assuming probably the other one is either the Elks or the Odd Fellows. But what I really like about that cemetery is that there are so many wrought iron fences and gates that remain.
Jennie: Ooo! Those are my favorite!
Dianne: I mean one after another after another. I know during, like World War II, when everybody was contributing to the scrap drives, a lot of that stuff, people felt, you know, to support the war effort was more important. And how all of those remained up there, I don’t know but it is amazing! You definitely need to go.
Jennie: Yes! It’s been on my list to get up there and I was so disappointed when I couldn’t do it earlier this year, but hopefully soon, that one is definitely on my list to go and see, because i’m super excited. So this is kind of where we’re gonna go with the podcast is we’re gonna talk about all those cemeteries and we can go more into that history about, like you said, how they took the metal away to use it for the war effort, but also we’ve been researching some of the folks buried there. Like I said, the everyday folks, not necessarily the famous people, but the everyday people who were a part of their communities and helped form their communities or helped continue their communities to keep going in later years. Just depending on what we’ve been able to find. And it’s super fascinating to go back and do the research and read their journals. There’s one gentleman from Central City who wrote a ton of poetry. And I have fallen in love with his poems because they really talk about life as a miner, but also sometimes just life in the community, like, just different things. So when you read it you’re like, oh, that’s in his own words, his own thoughts, this is what he’s thinking in a community where you don’t think of a miner as a poet, like there’s that whole thing. And I just love it. It makes me just fall in love with that. So.
Dianne: Jennie, will we be exploring cemeteries in any particular order?
Jennie: Not really. So my plan is to discuss cemeteries as we’re able to research them. We are beginning with Colorado cemeteries and that is simply because you and I live in Colorado so it’s easy enough for us to do the research here and find out more of those stories. But, I have reached out to several people in other states that are very interested in providing stories or even calling in and being a guest on the podcast with us and sharing stories which will be fascinating. And these are, like, all over the map from other states. We’ve got Mississippi, and I think I had somebody in New Hampshire and another person in Pennsylvania. We’ve got some people in Illinois, so we’re gonna be able to hit cemeteries that are all across the board which is going to be fabulous. We’re going to get a lot of different stories and traditions and things like that, that, you know, we don’t necessarily do right here in Colorado so I’m excited. Also, as we go on, listeners, if you know of a cemetery, you know of research in a cemetery, whether it’s a family story, you know, you have a family plot and there’s interesting things about your family and you’d like to share it with us, we would be more than happy to include those in our podcast. And again, if you wanted to be a guest and actually speak on the air with us, you can do that or you can just simply email us your stories and verified sources, because again, because this is historical we want to make sure we have actual historical sources to back up what we put out there. But, if you want to be part of that we would love to do that. We do have a facebook page and an Instagram account already. They’re already up and going. They are both @ordinaryextraordindarycemetery. So all one word, no punctuation, @ordinaryextraordindarycemetery. I know, it’s kind of long. There are photos already posted there, there’s some stories posted there already, so you can go there and look at that. And then as we go on, we will include photos and sources every time we do an episode. If you want to contribute your own photos and stuff to the facebook page, you’re more than welcome to do that. We would be happy to accept all of those.
Dianne: I have to tell you, we are both so excited to begin this journey through history. This will be unlike history in school or even other historical podcasts. Death in the modern age is often such a taboo subject, but it’s very much a part of life. For generations people died at a much younger age after having lived and worked much harder than we can even imagine today. It was their hard work and their sacrifices that allow us to live in a modern world. I for one, want to get to know some of these people better.
Jennie: I also want to reassure our listeners who are looking for something more spooky, in case they thought that was what this was going to be, that while the majority of the podcast will focus on history, we will occasionally feature a spooky story that are related to the cemeteries we feature. I think most cemeteries have ghost stories connected to them and since a lot of ghost stories are based on true stories, we will feature those as we go through the podcast. But we will be sure to connect it to whatever the true story is if we can find that. Connect the ghost story to the true story if we can figure that out. Because over time these stories do take on a life of their own and they do change. If it’s an old enough cemetery those stories change over the centuries as each generation comes up with something else to add to it. But, they’re still fun to hear and so I don’t want to exclude them, but that’s not the sole focus of this particular podcast.
Dianne: Since we’re not focused on any one particular cemetery today, what if we end our first episode of the Ordinary, Extraordinary Cemetery podcast with a bit of a story?
Jennie: I think that is an excellent idea and I have just the one in mind too. We won’t tell the whole story because it’s too long, but I think we can take a few snippets from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, Chippings with a Chisel. It is a story about a headstone carver and his customers. The story was published in 1837 in his book Twice Told Tales and can be found online for free at Project Guttenberg.
Dianne: Passing a summer, several years since, at Edgartown, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, I became acquainted with a certain carver of tombstones, who had travelled and voyaged thither from the interior of Massachusetts, in search of professional employment. The speculation had turned out so successful, that my friend expected to transmute slate and marble into silver and gold, to the amount of at least a thousand dollars, during the few months of his sojourn at Nantucket and the Vineyard. -- My acquaintance, the sculptor, had found a ready market for all his blank slabs of marble, and full occupation in lettering and ornamenting them. He was an elderly man, a descendant of the old Puritan family of Wigglesworth, with a certain simplicity and singleness, both of heart and mind, which, methinks, is more rarely-found among us Yankees than in any other community of people. His sole task and office among the immortal pilgrims of the tomb--the duty for which Providence had sent the old man into the world, as it were with a chisel in his hand--was to label the dead bodies, lest their names should be forgotten at the resurrection.
Jennie: Sometimes we would discuss the respective merits of the various qualities of marble, numerous slabs of which were resting against the walls of the shop; or sometimes an hour or two would pass quietly, without a word on either side, while I watched how neatly his chisel struck out letter after letter -- But my chief and most instructive amusement was to witness his interviews with his customers, who held interminable consultations about the form and fashion of the desired monuments, the buried excellence to be commemorated, the anguish to be expressed, and finally, the lowest price in dollars and cents for which a marble transcript of their feelings might be obtained.
Dianne: None of the applicants, I think, affected me more disagreeably than an old man who came, with his fourth wife hanging on his arm, to bespeak gravestones for the three former occupants of his marriage-bed. I watched with some anxiety to see whether his remembrance of either were more affectionate than of the other two, but could discover no symptom of the kind. The three monuments were all to be of the same material and form, and each decorated, in bas-relief, with two weeping-willows, one of these sympathetic trees bending over its fellow, which was to be broken in the midst and rest upon an urn. This, indeed, was Mr. Wigglesworth’s standing emblem of conjugal bereavement. I shuddered at the gray polygamist, who had so utterly lost the holy sense of individuality in wedlock, that methought he was fain to reckon upon his fingers how many women, who had once slept by his side, were now sleeping in their graves. There was even--if I wrong him it is no great matter--a glance sidelong at his living spouse, as if he were inclined to drive a thriftier bargain by bespeaking four gravestones in a lot.
Jennie: A gentlewoman of the town, receiving news of her husband’s loss at sea, had bespoken a handsome slab of marble, and came daily to watch the progress of my friend’s chisel. One afternoon, when the good lady and the sculptor were in the very midst of the epitaph, which the departed spirit might have been greatly comforted to read, who should walk into the workshop but the deceased himself, in substance as well as spirit! He had been picked up at sea, and stood in no present need of tombstone or epitaph. “And how,” inquired I, “did his wife bear the shock of joyful surprise?” “Why,” said the old man, deepening the grin of a death’s-head, on which his chisel was just then employed, “I really felt for the poor woman; it was one of my best pieces of marble,--and to be thrown away on a living man!”
Dianne: I had grown the wiser from our companionship and from my observations of nature and character, as displayed by those who came, with their old griefs or their new ones, to get them recorded upon his slabs of marble. And yet, with my gain of wisdom, I had likewise gained perplexity; for there was a strange doubt in my mind, whether the dark shadowing of this life, the sorrows and regrets, have not as much real comfort in them--leaving religious influences out of the question--as what we term life’s joys.
Jennie: I love this story so much. Like I said, this story is quite long and so there are many more amusing customers mentioned in the story as well as the different types of headstones that the headstone carver carves for them. It is definitely worth the read for anyone who absolutely loves cemeteries and headstones. But even if you’re new to the whole cemetery, headstone idea, go check out the story because the stories will totally amuse you that he tells in that particular one. Again, we would just like to thank you so much for tuning in to this first episode of The Ordinary, Extraordinary Cemetery. We are super excited that you have joined us and we hope you will join us again next Thursday for episode two when we will begin to explore some of the cemeteries right here in Colorado.
Dianne: Thank you so much for joining us. Until we meet again!