Grandma’s cemetery memories



Old New England cemetery under a canopy of fall foliage in late October

A cemetery might not seem like a place for memorable stories, but my grandmother instilled in me a love for these places of solitude with tales of the people buried there.

Grandma lived in Crystal Falls, Mich. If she were alive, she would be 137 years old.  Every year, we visited Evergreen Cemetery twice: once on Memorial Day and again in the fall. Each time, we brought home the tall green wire baskets filled with the geraniums that decorated the graves of family members.

To me, those weren’t just graves. They were people, and I wanted to know about them. Fortunately, Grandma had some answers. Her stories, at least in part, inspired me to be a writer and psychotherapist. As a reporter, my curiosity about cemeteries often inspires me to look up obituaries and write about the lives of those people. That way, they won’t be forgotten.

Grandma’s daughter, Marian, was 3 years old when she died of spinal meningitis in 1908. Less than a month before, on Christmas, 1907, little Marian beamed with pride when she found a silver tea set “just like Mama’s” under the Christmas tree. It was a test of my grandparents’ faith to lose their curly haired darling, but they had to go on. An epitaph Grandma saw on other children’s tombstones helped ease the pain. It said “Budded on earth to bloom in heaven.” Grandma knew, for whatever reason, God had called Marian home.

The grave of another child also fascinated me. Tyler, 8, loved music and sang while his daddy played the banjo. Unfortunately, that was what other boys considered a “sissy” in the early 1900s. A group of them attacked him, laid a board over Tyler’s leg and jumped on it until the bones were shattered. He spent the next few years sitting in a wheelchair, unable to walk. When he died, his daddy put the banjo away and never played again.

To me, those weren’t just graves. They were people and I wanted to know about them.

Near our family plot were seven graves, one a newborn baby girl. The father of the five little girls had worked in the iron mines and was teased about having all daughters. Unable to take the badgering, he went home one night and shot and killed his entire family.  He finished the massacre by taking his own life. That was my introduction, at the tender age of 7, to prejudice against women. Grandma would be pleased to know things have changed a lot.

A crypt that looked like a small church marked the grave of a former mayor. He was an important and wealthy man who lived on the hill overlooking “his” city. But his days were numbered. He died of blood poisoning when dye from a red slipper got into his system through an ingrown toenail.

The “tales from the crypt” my grandma shared taught me a cemetery is not a spooky place. Rather, it is a sacred, special place where the people who laid the foundations for our cities and towns now rest in peace.

Before cars, Grandma said, visits to the cemetery were an all-day event.  This was especially on “Decoration Day” – now called Memorial Day. Families would pack a picnic lunch and spend the day decorating the graves, sharing memories, having lunch and finally driving home by horse and buggy after a long day honoring their ancestors.

As I shared her stories with my children and grandchildren, they too developed both an appreciation for history and old cemeteries.

Each fall, I pack a lunch and visit one of the old cemeteries in my current home of Salida, Colo. A friend and I share a “graveyard picnic” as we visit the folks who founded our community over 100 years ago.

ARLENE SHOVALD is a freelance writer from Colorado. Readers who have some basic computer skills might enjoy learning about their ancestors at Membership fees for the site might be an appreciated birthday or other gift.


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