Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

A Cemetery Stroll, Just in Time for Halloween

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Cemeteries, Headstone symbolism, Ben Franklin's epitaph, Lake View Cemetery, Cemetery ghosts, Cindy Murphy,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgIt was a warm, sunny afternoon in early October when Shannon and I rode our bikes through Lake View Cemetery.  Large, and never crowded, with smooth blacktopped, winding roads, and rolling hills, it is one of my favorite places to ride my bike in town.  Tall mature trees offer cool shade in summer, and the crunch of fallen leaves in autumn.  Little whirlwinds of them rustled as we sped past the final resting places of our town’s former inhabitants; I love the sound of rustling leaves in autumn.  I love cemeteries, and ours was especially beautiful on this gorgeous autumn afternoon. 

An Early October Visit 

It’s been said I spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries. 

From small, local graveyards, to well-known historical final resting places, I’ve visited cemeteries wherever I’ve lived and traveled.  I’ve seen the ancient and mysterious burial grounds of Stonehenge, and the hauntingly beautiful Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris that has an interment list that reads like a who’s who of the once famous/now dead:  Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Pissarro, Marcel Marceau, and Jim Morrison are all buried there. 

 The symmetry in the rows of simple white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery is somberly moving, and the “Cities of the Dead” in New Orleans with their above ground crypts and voodoo queen legends are among the creepiest.  The most populated may be The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague with tombstones so close together they’re nearly back-to-back, and interred bodies twelve layers deep.  Twelve thousand headstones are visible, but it’s estimated closer to 100,000 people are buried there.  The nearby Holocaust Victims Memorial in Pinkas Synagogue is a stark reminder of man’s atrocities; with nearly 80,000 names of Bohemian and Moravian Jews, it is thought to be the world’s largest epitaph. 

Some epitaphs become famous for the cleverness or humor in them.  Ben Franklin wrote his own epitaph when he was a young man.     

The Body of
B. Franklin
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.

 The epitaph, though, does not appear on his grave in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Burial Grounds.  Only the names of he and his wife with the date 1790 are written on the marble slab adorned with pennies.  It’s Franklin who is credited with the adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned”, and visitors to his gravesite (which is coincidently across from the U.S. Mint) toss pennies on the slab for good luck.   

I’ve been fascinated with cemeteries since I was a kid, visiting my cousin’s house out in the country.  She and I would ride our bikes down the dirt and gravel road to the cemetery; the cemetery had paved roads which were much better for riding bikes than dirt ones. Spending an inordinate amount of time in a cemetery when you're a kid means adventure. We knew where all the cool graves were (the ones with the locket-type thingies on them that opened up to reveal the deceased’s photo), the slightly creepy graves (where the ground was mushy), and the better-not-even-go-near-it graves (the haunted ones, of course – haunted only because of the stories told to us by the older kids, or those we concocted ourselves). 

Some headstones can’t help but make you wonder about the life of the person buried there.   

But once the final curtain was drawn…  

The Final Curtain  

Their lives forever remain cloaked in mystery, leaving it only to our imagination.    

Cloaked in mystery 

Why, for example, is the Good Reverend Snyder’s grave marked with a plain rock?  Does this pauper’s type headstone symbolize a life lived without worldly possessions in anticipation of receiving greater gifts in the afterlife?  

Mystery rock 

The designs of tombstones are not purely decoration, but most have symbolic meaning, some of which has been nearly forgotten over time.   

Time and weather wore away nearly everything but the oak leaf on this simple, yet still beautiful headstone.  On tombstones, oak trees, leaves, and acorns represent strength, honor, stability, and long life.   

Oak leaves symbolize many things  

Oak leaves are present too, at the base of this towering monument.  The woman holding an anchor is often a symbol of hope, or someone lost at sea; in this case, perhaps the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan claimed another victim. 

Towering Woman with an Anchor     

The fern growing at the base of this tombstone symbolizes humility and sincerity. Headstones in the shape of tree trunks typically mark the graves of Woodmen of the World members; the stones were a benefit of membership that was discontinued due to costs in the late 1920s. 

Woodsmen of the World tombstone  

When exploring the gravesites, I stick to the cemetery’s older sections.  It’s not necessarily that the tombstones there are more interesting than more recent ones, but to me it seems somewhat disrespectful to imagine the lives and deaths of people who are still close in the hearts of family and friends.  

A few weeks after our bike ride, I returned to the cemetery on a gray, rainy day, this time alone and on foot.  Gloomy, cold, and with Halloween just around the corner, the unsettling atmosphere seemed appropriate.   

This the season to wonder what lurks behind those monuments on the hill....  

What lurks up on the hill        

What family secrets were taken to the grave, and are best left buried forever under rock and earth?  

Family Secrets maybe 

In all the time I’ve been alone in the cemetery, I’ve only been truly scared just once… 

Wintry Grave

I love cross-country skiing in the cemetery as much as I love bike riding there.  It was sunny when I left the house on my skis just after a storm that dumped two feet of snow finally let up.  At the cemetery, the deep snow made it impossible to actually see the roads; I only knew I was on them was because I wasn't running into headstones.   Without warning another system blew in over the lake, changing the blue sky to dark gray in an instant.  The snow came down hard and fast.  In nearly white-out conditions, I couldn't see three feet in front of me, much less where I thought the road should be. Evidently, I misjudged and ended up skiing among the graves.

It was slow moving; more like plodding than skiing, and I was growing tired.  Stopping to get my bearings, I chose to the nearest place to rest – which was on William "Buddy" Q. Hill’s grave. I apologized to Buddy as I sat on his headstone.  Quite suddenly, I found myself lying on the ground in what seemed to me to be a rather odd position.  I hadn’t fallen backwards off the headstone as one might expect; I wasn’t laying face down in the snow in front of it either.  I was flat on my back, directly on top of the grave with my head resting against Buddy’s headstone.

I gave a little laugh – that nervous kind of laughter that happens almost involuntarily when you don’t quite understand what happened.   

You know how sometimes you can freak yourself out with just your imagination?

I laid there half buried in the snow, and staring up at a completely white sky with big, wet flakes quickly covering my face.  It was kind of calming for a moment, but in an instant burst of irrational fear, I imagined an arm on either side of me reaching up, and pulling me under.  No one would know what happened; all my tracks would soon be erased by snow.  I would have simply disappeared without a trace.  I rolled off the grave, and made a beeline for the cemetery's exit, not caring if I was on the road or not. 

I’ve passed by Buddy’s grave every so often since then. (It sits fairly close to the road; only a few more feet and I would have been there!)  For the same reasons I prefer the older graves, I haven’t wondered too much about Buddy, except to note he was born less than 10 years ahead of me, and that he died very young, at age 18.  Instead of imagining what his life was like or why he died so young, every time I pass by I nod, or say “hi, Buddy.”  It seems the respectful thing to do.           

Despite stories of ghostly apparitions and haunted graveyards, I recently read that cemeteries are not a typical place for restless spirits to roam.  Grisly murders, untimely deaths, and unfinished business - a spirit will haunt the places where these events took place. Cemeteries are just final resting places for the body, not the spirit. Ghosts inhabit a cemetery only when their graves have been disturbed in some way  – by things such as improper burials, grave robbers, or natural disasters.  Or perhaps someone sitting on a headstone in need of a gentle little push to be reminded to respect the dead.  

Or maybe I just slipped.  

Happy Halloween 

Happy Halloween, Everyone.

cindy murphy
11/3/2011 11:27:34 PM

Thanks for your comments Mary and Chuck; there are a lot of us out there who enjoy “trolling” cemeteries, (that made me chuckle, Chuck – it reminded me of Friday and Saturday nights way, way, waaaaay back when I was in high school, cruising through town with my girlfriends, trolling for guys….definitely not the kind of trolling you’d want to do in a cemetery!). I agree with both of you – cemeteries are such beautiful places. Something I read that I thought was interesting: in the late 1920s, cemeteries in the U.S. were designed to be like parks. They were meant for people to stroll for enjoyment; some even had concession and souvenir stands in them! Mary, the Huntsville and Florence Historical Society’s days the dead come to life sounds like something I’d very much enjoy. One of the lakeshore towns about an hour from here was doing a very similar thing in their cemetery this past weekend for Halloween; it wasn’t to be a ghost story type thing, but rather a historical thing. I would have loved to go, but drats! I had to work that day. Again, thanks for stopping by, and you both enjoy your weekends.

cindy murphy
11/3/2011 10:10:25 PM

Hey, Stepper. You are right, you know. I do spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries – at least in comparison to most of the people I know, anyway. Yep, almost everything you see on a tombstone – scrolls, flowers, animals, various tools, etc. – has, at one time, symbolic meaning. Some of it is easy to figure out; other meanings are more obscure. Whenever I see something interesting on a headstone, I look it up on the Internet when I get home. Broken branches, for example, mean a life was cut short, broken chains stands for the release of the spirit from the body, fruit symbolizes eternal bounty, and poppies stand for rest or eternal sleep (like the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz!). Ivy, such as on Buddy’s grave, means eternal life (because ivy is evergreen). I’ll be sure to say “hi” to him for you next time I pass by.

mary carton
11/2/2011 9:33:53 PM

I just love the cemetery tours of Savannah Georgia and Charleston SC. Such beautiful old cemeteries. I was walking through the cemetery at St. Florian Al looking for the grave of a relative killed in WWI. It was so peaceful. I didn't find the grave I was looking for as several weren't readable. Three just had headstones with the word "unknown" on them. I wondered if old headstones weren't readable when replaced or was the church providing a resting place for the homeless. In Florence and Huntsville Al we have days when the famous deceased come to life. Members of the Historical Society dress in the period the person lived and tells the history of the character they are portraying.

chuck mallory
11/1/2011 9:28:11 PM

You are not the only person who enjoys trolling through cemeteries. I used to take elderly relatives to the cemetery on Memorial Day, and later did rubbings on tombstones when I was doing genealogy. I don't think people realize how much "art" there is in old cemeteries. Some of the old stones are beautiful. And there are a thousand stories in the cemetery. Who was she? Who was he? What happened when all these children passed away so young? It's a place to let your imagination roam.

chris davis
11/1/2011 9:19:59 PM

“It’s been said I spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries.” Maybe that’s a misinterpretation resulting from you sharing your facination, but true or not, it’s another fun to read piece Cindy. Old cemeteries and their monuments have a certain appeal for many and the pictures add nicely. I especially like the winter picture – pristine snow hiding the hidden. I didn’t know there was symbolic significance to the leaves, ferns, and such on old tombstones – thanks for sharing. I’ll have to look more closely next time I’m in a cemetery. Of course, it’s also possible that you really do spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries. Oh, and please say “Thanks” to Buddy for me for the fun story the next time he makes his presence known to you.

cindy murphy
10/29/2011 9:28:34 PM

Hi, Michelle. So you think I slipped, eh? I pretty much think so too....or at least I've convinced myself of it. It was a different story when it happened though; for a few moments you couldn't have convinced me it was anything other than a ghost. Hugs, back at ya.

michelle house
10/29/2011 11:44:44 AM

Hi Cindy, loved the article. I used to go to cemeteries as a kid, the old markers intrigued me, one time my grade school class did a field trip to one, to do rubbings of some markers. I have a rubbing from Anne Boleyns grave marker, a friend got it for me, when she was in England. It is cool looking. I am gonna guess, you slipped. :) Hugs Michelle

nebraska dave
10/28/2011 7:22:12 AM

Oops, sorry Susy, the kids were nieces and nephew.

cindy murphy
10/28/2011 7:17:01 AM

What will I be for Halloween, Dave? A graveyard keeper, of course, for the graveyard in my front lawn – complete with the iron bed that is the final resting place of Emma Corpse with all the ghouls and monsters coming out from underneath it. Yes, yes, corny I know, but the treat-or-treaters, their parents, I and always have fun with whatever my front yard is transformed into for Halloween. I’m sorry to hear your Dad slipping. From all the stories you’ve told about growing up, he sounds like he played a wonderful role in your childhood years. I hope you two have a good visit. The nursery will close for the season next week; time spent after that will be a flurry of activity getting things ready for winter – it’s a huge job. I only hope the activity is the only flurry happening; it’s never fun trying to put everything to bed while wading through snow. Why, oh why, is fall (the best of all seasons), pitifully short! Have a great weekend, Dave, and travel safely.

nebraska dave
10/27/2011 7:53:40 PM

Cindy, I know from last year's posts that this one of your most enjoyed holidays. What will your costume be this year? I'll be in Las Vegas this year with family. Bradley and his Mom will be with me. I think my oldest daughter has something planned but I will be visiting Dad. He has really gone down hill this last year and now is slipping away mentally. His influence on my life has in many ways other than genetic helped me become the person that I am. He has been a great example of how to be a man, a husband, a son, and a father. Has the nursery been shut down for the season yet? I just finished up raking up the leaves for the first round. The maples in the neighborhood dump their leaves about the middle of November. The tree colors are again gorgeous this year. It's been a dry fall which causes the leaves to turn colors slowly and hold them longer. I'm not much of one to wander around in graveyards. I wonder about the person that built the rock wall back in 1965 that I removed when I built the poor man's patio. I wonder about the person that planted Old Rose in the backyard that I cut down. I wonder about who installed the little sink I broke and replaced. Those are the things and people I wonder about. I wonder if they are still alive today and what are they doing if they are. It's kind of fun to wonder about things. Isn't it? Have a great Halloween. Don't get too creeped out. :0) P.S. Do people still do post scripts any more? Anyway I actually watched a video of Susy Morris and her grand daughters putting a .... fairy garden together.