Friday, February 17, 2012

Cemetery Tales - Celebrating a Life

I drove into the Teton Cemetery after work one evening last fall. It was about 5:00. At that time of day I was used to seeing an occasional car and maybe the sexton. I was surprised when I saw a large number of cars lining the narrow road on the far side. A large group of people were circled around typical of a graveside service. I eased my car to a stop to wait. I did not want to be a distraction for the service.

It was a warm evening, so I rolled down my window to get some air. I leaned back in my seat and just relaxed, watching the group from afar. Gradually I started noticing some oddities about this gathering. Snippets of laughter came, not once, but over and over. A lot of children were in the group and they were all holding brightly colored balloons. And then the singing started. They sang a few unfamiliar songs and then ended with "Happy Birthday to You". As one, they all let go and 50 bright balloons floated upward and away. It was beautiful.

Immediately afterward the group began to disburse. I heard one small child ask excitedly, "are we going to go watch the movie, now?" The cars all loaded and drove away as one.

I was extremely curious. After the last car had pulled out I went to the spot where the celebration had taken place. Small trinkets and tokens had been left on the headstone, and the date revealed that yes, today was this lady's 56th birthday.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cemetery Tales: A Love Story

I had just about finished photographing the entire cemetery. It was one of the larger ones I'd done and had taken me almost 2 weeks. I was on my last section.

An older gentleman was mowing the lawns and keeping his eye on me. I'd seen him on and off for a few days. Finally he came over to me and asked me what I was doing. I told him about billiongraves and he was quite interested. He got out his cell phone and I helped him find the app. Then he told me a story.

"See that grave right there? I need to tell you 'bout that one. Many years ago there was this feller who just loved his wife so much. He was, what you might call, obsessed with her. Well, that there lady done take sick, and well.... she ended up dyin'.

"That feller was so heartsick. He just couldn't stand the thought of never seeing his sweetie again, so he buried her right there, and left off the lid of the coffin. Then he went and got a big piece of glass and put it over the top. That poor feller was here every minute he could be so he could gaze down at his beloved.

"Well, time started passin' and that poor lady started goin' bad. The cemetery board had a little meetin' about it and had to tell that poor feller that he was goin' to have to cover her up.

"With a heavy heart he consented and put on the lid. I don't think the board trusted him none, though, cause look what they did."

And with that I looked and saw a weathered cement slab covering.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cemetery Tales: A Broken Man

One evening after work I decided to go photograph one of the smaller outlying cemeteries. I wasn't positive where it was, but trusted my GPS to get me there. When I arrived I was a little nervous to discover that it was at the edge of civilization. Miles of sand dunes on one side, a sagebrush dessert on another. I pulled in and got out of my car.

As I was halfway through the first section I noticed an old beat up car pull in. The car slowly drove around the entire cemetery before moving over to the section where I was working. It stopped right next to me. A man of about 30 got out of the car. He had an open beer can in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. He was dirty, unshaven, and was wearing tattered clothes. And he just stood there watching me.

I was acutely aware of how vulnerable I was. I was in an isolated place, no one knew where I was, and I was a bit scared. I tried not to show my nervousness and kept moving from headstone to headstone, pausing to take the photo. I said hi to him and he mumbled a hi. Then he said, "are you getting ideas?" I told him then what I was doing. I said, "is your family buried here?" and he said yes. I told him his family would be able to go to and look up pictures and information about his family that was buried there. He said that was cool and then I moved off down the row, snapping photos.

When I got a ways away I glanced back to where I'd spoken with him, and was shocked to see that he was down on the ground. He was crying and obviously in great emotional pain. I discreetly moved off to a farther section of the cemetery to give him privacy. After about 20 minutes I saw his car drive out.

I was curious. I went back to the spot where we'd spoken and looked again at the headstone. There was a photo on this one. A photo of a very lovely little family. All shiny and clean and happy; man, wife and child. The wife was the one buried there. The man in the photo spoke volumes of how far down the slippery slope of grief that poor broken man had come.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cemetery Tales - Telling a Story

Whenever I go to a new cemetery I feel like I'm meeting a new friend. Each one has a unique personality.

The Rexburg Cemetery is very traditional and stable, Sugar City is family centered and active. The Annis Little Butte Cemetery is sentimental. I could go on. Archer, Burton, Plano, Teton, Ammon, Rosehill. Each one has a "feel". Some of them have valuable momentos left behind by loved ones, some are as decorated as main street at Christmas. There are little notes and letters tucked in crevices for parents and toys left for children who have passed. I haven't met a cemetery yet that I haven't liked. So far they have all been friendly.

As I enter a new cemetery I look around for a place to start. Usually I start on one side and work across, but not always. If I have family buried in a particular cemetery I always do my family first. It just seems more polite.

I always read the name on the headstone. I am very aware that each one represents a real person. A lot of the time I also read the dates. They sure tell a story. When I see a family plot where many children have died at tender ages I feel a twinge of sadness and sympathy for the parents that they had to endure so much heartache while on earth. I'm always happy to see names of people I knew. Not happy that they have died. Just a remembrance of my interaction with them while they were alive. I've found former teachers, parents of friends, classmates, distant family, local "celebrities", and just plain old aquaintences. I find myself talking to them.

"Oh, so that's why I haven't seen you around for so long."
"I wondered what happened to you."

Every so often I come across someone who has a birthday on the day I'm there. I know it's weird, but I always sing a quick little "happy birthday to you" song for them.

I've seen, multiple family deaths on the same day, which reminded me of the bad car accident that I read about, a mother who died the same day as her stillborn baby, and a local man who died at the Pentagon on 9-11. I've seen historical figures from our local pioneer heritage and pauper's graves with hardly more than a rotting wood cross.

It always makes me feel like I'm connected to the whole of the human race, and to each individual.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cemetery Tales #1

There is a great app that I found on my smart phone. It's called BillionGraves. I was just browsing through the apps one day and saw this one. I've always kind of had a thing for trompsing through cemeteries, so my interest was peaked.

With this application you can go to a headstone and take a picture using your GPS capable smartphone. The picture is then linked to a GPS coordinate so that anyone finding the picture will know exactly where it is. You can also link the picture of the front of the headstone with the picture of the back with just a little tap on the screen. These pictures are then uploaded to the website On the website you can go in and transcribe the words of the headstone. This will go into a searchable database that anyone can access. If you just want to take photos and upload them, other volunteers can go in and do the transcriptions. If you don't want to get tendonitis of the foot you can just go to the website and start transcribing. There are people all over the world contributing to this. It's kind of fun to go in and see where the latest uploads are coming from.

I got really excited about helping with the project. I got my phone all set up, read all the helpful hints (which weren't totally necessary as I ignore a lot of them) and took off for my local cemetery.

Now do you want to know what happened on my very first day? Something very syncronistic. I was walking from grave to grave, pausing briefly to lean over and snap the photo and I saw out of the corner of my eye this large group of people walking down the road next to the cemetery. I was feeling a little bit self-conscious and foolish and tried to not look at them.

One of the guys in the group called over to me, "hey, do you mind me asking what you're doing?" So I swallowed my pride and told him. He said, "I thought that's what you were doing, but I thought, Noooo, what are the chances?" Apparently this guy was one of the developers of the app and was just in town visiting family.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tennis Foot?

It's official. I have tennis elbow of the foot.

It all started last summer. I spent some time in cemeteries.

A LOT of time.

I tromped over the uneven ground and took photos of over 17,000 headstones. And my foot has been hurting ever since. I thought maybe I gave myself a stress fracture. I just kept taping up my own foot, trying to ignore the pain, and hoped it would heal on it's own. After 6 months of this I decided it was time to visit my favorite podiatrist. The x-rays were clear. In fact my bones looked pretty darn good!

When he started twisting and poking at my foot, though, the problem became pretty obvious. I had overworked the tendon going to the outside of one of my right tarsals. It was inflamed and angry.

The treatment? A nice long painful shot of cortizone right into the offending tendon, and nice wrap job on the foot, and was told to keep it immobilized as much as possible for 2 months.

... right.

I'll do my best to hasten the healing. I need to get in top cemetery form before all the snow melts and I can hit the headstones again. I'm just dying to get out there!

The doc was asking me how I think I had injured myself and I started telling him about my propensity for haunting cemeteries. (ha ha ha) That led to telling him a few of the really interesting stories that I really feel like I need to write down before I forget.

Those stories will be great for another blog on another day.