Saturday, May 2, 2009

Meet: Lisa Burks, "Adventures in Grave Hunting"

The twenty fourth in a series
featuring a member of
The Graveyard Rabbit Association


Cemeteries have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and they've actually guided me along some of my more interesting life paths.
Growing up in rural Michigan, I spent a lot of time frolicking among the headstones at a tiny, rustic lakeside graveyard near our home. The names on the markers represented my version of imaginary friends. One of those friends in particular had a great effect on me.
One winter day when I was about 11 or 12, a friend and I stole penny candy from a dime store located across the street from the cemetery, and we hid the loot in the snow on a random grave. As we scrapped the ice off the headstone to see who we were entrusting our haul to, the name Erastus Hopkins 1805-1876 emerged.
Erastus sounded a lot like "arrest us" to me. I felt an altogether different chill run down my back that had nothing to do with the subzero temperature that day. My young heart and mind decided that it was an important message from the grave, and that our first big heist would also be my last.
A few years later, when I was in seventh grade, we began studying local history. My teacher did a presentation on the founding fathers of our township which included, of all people, my old friend Erastus. I immediately raised my hand and proudly exclaimed a phrase I've blurted out many time since: "I know where he's buried!"
Although she didn't come right out and say it, my teacher's facial expression told me that this was a very unusual fact for a "tween" girl to possess. That tickled me to, ahem, death, It was the first time I realized that while this type of knowledge was deemed quirky by some, it was historically informative and therefore worth pursuing.
So thanks to Erastus, I avoided a life of petty crime and found a non-traditional teenage hobby (among my friends, at least) that didn't involve buying records and Tiger Beat magazines. My mother was thrilled, as she enjoyed exploring cemeteries, too. She often bribed me into doing things against my will, like cleaning my room or going to the dentist or eye doctor, by promising to take me to a cemetery after an appointment.
When my dad died in 1984, cemeteries took on a new meaning. It was painful but cathartic to take flowers to his grave, and one of the ways I eased my sorrow was by 'getting to know' his permanent neighbors by walking among the headstones.
My sister and I visited Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 when I had a job interview here. We went to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills to look at the artwork. Seriously. Everyone who knows my current interest in celebrity graving thinks that's just hysterical. Sissy noticed from afar the name Stan Laurel on a marker on one of the garden walls and asked, "Do you think that's the Stan Laurel?" It was. I was enthralled.
I got the job and became hooked on hunting for the graves of old movie stars at the many Los Angeles cemeteries as a way to get to know my new town. The first celebrity grave I actively sought out was that of James Dean, which I visited during a pitstop in Fairmount, Indiana, on my long drive to California.
It was a good ten years of grave hunting alone in Los Angeles before the birth of the internet as we know it. In 1998 I hooked up with a chat group called Hollywood Underground where I discovered dozens of like-minded graving enthusiasts who lived in the city. We began meeting for group hunts at various cemeteries and the days events always included bonding lunches and the forming of longstanding friendships.
That group now consists of over 200 members, and we have held annual formal dinners for over ten years now. It's sort of like a graver's prom and family reunion all rolled into one each October.
Gravehunting, the internet and my passion for writing spelled a natural outlet for me. I currently run two websites devoted to the craft. And I do consider it a craft that I practice, more than a hobby, now. It's really become a calling for me.
One site, Adventures in Grave Hunting is the place where I express myself as an individual and to relate the experiences I encounter while exploring cemeteries. The other site, Grand View Memorial Park(dot)info is devoted to my neighborhood cemetery on the Burbank/Glendale border that has been wrought in four years and counting worth of legal problems, and is the one I am most proud of.
I began chronicling Grand View's troubles on my personal blog in 2005 and was quickly recruited by a local newspaper to cover the story for their volunteer citizen journalism program on a grassroots level. My articles appeared online and in the print paper, and drew a large following because most of the local media was ignoring the story.
Readers (many of them people with family buried at Grand View) kept asking where they could find a one-stop-shopping website for news, information, photos, and links to the contact information for all the major players in the on-going saga as the cemetery closed for regular business in late 2006. There was no such site, so I created one myself.
I'm most proud of the Grand View site because I've been able to parlay my love of a neighborhood cemetery, nose for news and networking and grave hunting research skills into a way of being of service to people who are emotionally distressed over the fate of the final resting place of their loved ones. I'm doing what I love, and I'm helping to make a difference. I think that my original neighborhood cemetery friend, Erastus, would approve of how things turned


Janet Iles said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Lisa. You certainly were a graveyard rabbit long before the Association existed.

Steve Goldstein said...

This is great, Lisa! As I read it, I thought, This should be the introduction of your eventual book on Grand View. That is a book I can not wait to own!

Prohomemaker.Com said...

I have to admit, I did laugh when you said you went to Forest Lawn to see the artwork. You were such a goody-goodey :-)

Absolutely wonderful story to read!

Forget Me Nots Design said...

Hey! I'm descended from Erastus Hopkins! I would love to have contact with Lisa - don't know if you will see this or not Lisa. Maybe you can contact me through my blog listed here if you read this!

Sanry Meyers said...

I too am a desended of Erastus Hopkins I was amused by your sorry as i was at his grave a few years ago.