My sister and I grew up with a shared fascination for cemeteries. We loved “browsing” headstones, intrigued by the family groupings, the ages to which people lived (graveyards are no doubt responsible for my earlier math skills, as well as my “fluency” in Roman numerals), and the given names that were popular at different times.
I confess our fascination was heightened by the eerie idea of bones beneath our feet–though the entrancement did not extend to enthusiasm when faced with our mother’s suggestion that we should pose for a picture in a pair of excavated stone coffins in the churchyard of St Andrews, Scotland. Mother–being Mother–prevailed, but I imagine the photo showing the pair of us sitting as gingerly as if we were ready to jump out of our skins as well as the coffins. To round out the experience, we found the gates locked when we tried to leave at dusk, and our none-too-nimble father had to climb over the wall and find someone to rescue the rest of us from the locked and darkening graveyard. All in all a traumatic evening (or would have been, had our “trauma” not been soothed with ice cream directly afterward)–but even that adventure failed to dim our fascination for cemeteries.
My high school biology class once undertook a “census” of our hometown cemetery, plugging dates into spreadsheets and tracking the spikes in death-rates concurrent with wars and flu epidemics. It was an exercise in statistical analysis, but brought to light the things that had always intrigued me: the stories lurking in cemeteries.
Yesterday, driving from a doctor appointment (verdict Benign–thank you, God) with a few hours to kill before my next engagement, I passed Boise’s Morris Hill Cemetery and impulsively pulled over for a browse. Even a drive-through visit tells a lot about Boise’s history; there’s a huge section of Basque names (Boise is the largest center of Basque population outside of Spain), an area marked off for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation (the oldest operational synagogue west of the Mississippi), a “Chinatown” section (laundries and Chinese gardens along what’s now Chinden Boulevard served Idaho’s early miners), and a heart-rending parcel comprised of dozens of children. (One four-year-old’s headstone here includes a peculiar notation: “James Hong, Korean.” I’m curious what perceived necessity led to the inclusion of that particular footnote.)
As I wandered down an older stretch of headstones, I pulled out my iPad on a whim and began a “census” of my own. No idea what I meant to do with it, but I arrived home later, still wondering about these 150 people I’d “collected.” Some days, Google is my best friend.
There were some locally famous folks in the row (though you wouldn’t know it from their headstones)–names I recognize from Boise’s street-signs, building-lintels, and business. But it’s more thrilling, somehow, to uncover tidbits about the folks who hadn’t left a lasting public impression…
Allen Webster rode for the Pony Express. Anna Paine remained a “spinster” and taught music. Robert Nourse was descended from the Rebecca Nurse who hanged at the Salem witch trials. Della Daly Evanstad is buried between her two husbands, and among offspring from both unions, though at least two of her toddlers are buried near her mining claim at Placerville. O.D. Brumbaugh, after involvement in some Indian skirmishes near the Silver City mines, donated the remains of Chief Buffalo Horn to the Idaho Historical Society. (These were returned to the tribe 85 years later.) Jane Brasie was a noted Southern belle, daughter of a Confederate soldier. “Nif” Sullivan (whose dad called him “Nifty Ed”–a nickname that stuck even to his headstone) owned a candy store, and Ludwig Stephan (whose wife, beside him, was “mail-order” from Bavaria) ran a bakery. Alice Beaumont was arrested several times, after her husband abandoned her in a mining town with small children, for “altercations & vulgar language and wielding a knife,” but was released to care for her children. Her daughter, Bonnie McCarroll, grew up to be a famous rodeo bronc-rider.
So many stories! And so few of them hinted at by the headstones. This has me wondering what my own memorial marker might say, when the time comes. Something properly pious, of course, suitable for a cemetery’s seriousness…
“God has always had my back.
Now he’s got the rest of me as well.”