I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology (which, these days, comes with a paper hat and cue card that reads: “Do you want fries with that?”). Gravestone studies are a way for me to use my degree when I’m not at my day-job earning money to pay the mortgage.
My interest in cemetery research is in seeing how people depict identity through public display and mortuary practice. Every cemetery I visit is my favorite. Each cemetery has as much to offer as the residents had to offer in life, because graveyards are reflections of community characteristics and belief systems.
One fantastic location I recommend to anyone interested in cemetery research, however, is Roslyn, Washington. In pop culture, Roslyn is known as Cicely, Alaska, home to the beloved characters populating the 1990-1995 television show Northern Exposure. A lesser-known fact is that Roslyn contains a 15-acre complex of 25, mostly ethnic and fraternal order, cemeteries. There are an estimated 5000 graves within the cemetery complex. The site as a whole is designated as Roslyn Historical Cemetery and was placed on the National Register of Historic places in the late 1970s.
Among the cemeteries are: Mt. Olivet (Black Miner’s Cemetery); Old City Cemetery; the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF); Knights of Pythias Lodge; Soloka Lodge; Wanapum Tribe 28, Improved Order of Redmen; Caccia Tori D’Africa (Hunters of Africa—an Italian Lodge), the Croatian Fraternal Union Lodge No. 56, SNF Lodge No. 79 (Serbian); Saint Barbara Lodge No. 39 (Greek); and Dr. David Starcevich Lodge No. 56 (Croatian) cemetery. Each cemetery is identified with a carved wooden sign that provides visitors with a brief historical background.
Although cemeteries are places for the dead, in my eyes, they are not dead places. Cemeteries and graveyards are ceremonial places where funerary and memorial rituals are carried out from season to season. Cemeteries are places where identities and memories of individuals and lives lived, are shared through verbal, written and artistic expression. For me, cemeteries are places of strong emotional release and the peace that descends following catharsis.
One of my favorite gravestones is quite ordinary in design but the inscription speaks volumes. In an era of stones that provide a man’s name in full, followed by the phrase “and wife” (frequently with only the woman’s first name), Ellen Hackett Doherty’s stone stands out.
When I first encountered the stones for Ellen and her husband, Neal, they were laying prone on the ground, the white marble blackened by soil and lichen and sod starting to creep up the edges. Brushing away lawn clippings and dried leaves, I looked upon Ellen’s marker and for the first time read, “Of your charity pray for the soul of Ellen Hackett / wife of Neal Doherty / A native of Russeltown / County Waterford Ireland / Who died May 3, 1891 / Aged 63 years.”
From the grave, Ellen reveals her identity and background in a way few women were memorialized in late 19th Century America. She was no mere “wife of…;” in her final statement to the world, Ellen claims her maiden name, native Irish home and heritage, and expresses her strength of faith. Bidding each passerby to consider their own humanity, Ellen calls for the charity of prayers for her soul. Having been pre-deceased by her husband by 18 years, it is a strong likelihood that Ellen was responsible for the choice of matching grave markers and the inscriptions they bear. Therefore, it is possible that it was actually Neal’s soul for which she expressed greatest concern.
For all these reasons, each time I visit this particular cemetery, I take time to visit Ellen and Neal and do the best I can in my own clumsy, non-denominational way, to abide by the plea for charity.
My introduction to cemeteries was through my family, first through Memorial Day visits to decorate graves and later traveling with my mother as she did genealogical research. No one in my family finds it particularly odd that I research gravestones and graveyards. My co-workers initially found it peculiar but I think the greater mystery for them is how I can possibly find research—something akin to actual work—relaxing!
Death is part of life. Most people prefer to spend time cooing at newborn babies, marveling at the miracle of birth and happily speculating over the promise of a life yet to be lived. I prefer to spend my time in cemeteries looking for clues about lives already lived as well as joys and sorrows long-since passed. It’s my feeling that at the moment of birth and the moment of death, we are closest to experiencing fully our shared humanity. For me, it isn’t two opposite ends of a spectrum but the point at which beginning and end join. Cemeteries are the ceremonial centers where we pay homage to our humanity, our mortality, our belief systems and the shared life experience.
Honestly, I became a Grave Yard Rabbit because I needed something to kick me in the butt and motivate me to start writing articles. Creating my blog as one of the conditions of membership spurred me to actually produce some outcome from two decades of research and yak-action about “the depiction of individual identity in a public space…, blah, blah, blah.” I found the organization through the ubiquitous technological entity, Facebook, and am glad I did because the group has inspired me to make serious progress in turning research into product.
Being part of GYR has been helpful in the study of specific gravestone designs and styles because it provides me with a ready network of people who share a similar interest and are willing to respond to inquiries about what they see and experience on the landscape. Since it isn’t economically feasible for me to travel the U.S. searching for similar styles of stones, by posting questions either on Facebook or in my blog, On a Grave Subject, I am able to get feedback and input from researchers everywhere. Truly, I think that ability to communicate with other researchers and share resources is the most valuable tool the group affords.