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Cemetery Census

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.

St Andrews, Scotland. Notice the drainage holes? That’s for “body juices” when the occupants decomposed. Ew.

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…

“Police Gazette” illustration, courtesy of the Idaho Statesman

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.”

St. Andrews, Scotland. Creepy place to be locked in.


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

22 thoughts on “Cemetery Census

    1. “Anonymous” (for the rest of you) IS my mother… ;)
      I searched for the fitting adjective, but “being Mother” seemed to cover it! A persuasive lady if I ever met one. Don’t know where I got my stubbornness…


  1. I love cemetaries, so much history and so thought provoking. I used to spend hours there by myself as a kid, hanging out with the dead. I have to admit that when my daughter was 4 and my son was 6 we made them up as zombies and took them down to the local cemetary for a black and white photo shoot.


  2. As a young boy growing up in Hawai’i I remember visiting the cemeteries of our Kupuna ( ancestors or elders). In the Hawai’ian language, the word Hana’u (pronounced ‘hah NAH oo’) translates to birth and the word Make ( pronounced ‘MAH kay’) means death or dead. Naturally these gravestones reflected the culture and language of the islands using Hana’u and Make instead of Born and Died. A Hui Ho’u, Keoni


  3. Interesting post. I like your Scotland story! I’ve always been fascinated by old cemeteries. There is a Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in Cincinnati that dates back to the early 1800’s – so much history lies beneath the soil.


  4. Growing up in North West London, my grandmother would regularly take me and my sister to Highgate Cemetery for a day out. It’s a fascinating place that is sadly no longer open to the public, largely due to that idiot satanist David Farrant’s habit of desecrating the graves. It’s also the last resting place of many famous people including Karl Marx and Elizabeth Siddal.


  5. I find cemeteries fascinating places. I particularly pay attention to the youngest inhabitants and the stories that could be told if only tombstones could speak :)


  6. Great post! I love browsing headstones, as well. I’ve come across some strange quotes, pictures, weirdly shaped headstones, etc. It’s fascinating, the stories behind some of them!


  7. My family used to have picnics in cemeteries (looking back, this may have been disrespectful, but I was young!) so I have always had a fascination with the history in them. Whenever I travel, if I happen to see a cemetery there is pretty much no stopping me from venturing through it.


    1. Maybe not disrespectful… In Mexico they bring picnics to pay respects to the dead, and my Hawai’ian husband always brings food as a token of respect to his kupunas (ancestors)… :)


  8. I thought I was the only one! I have been known to pull the car off the road in the middle of a trip just to traipse through a cemetery – though I haven’t been to Scotland yet. Great post!


  9. Love cemeteries too! Google really is my best friend a lot of days. Wonderful art work. Thank you for this insight into the connection you have with burial grounds.

    My friends threw a cemetery party for my 40th. Favorite party yet!


    1. I love it! :) I remember my Dad’s 40th, when my mom interrupted his University lecture to deliver a bouquet of black balloons tied to a Geritol bottle… My 40 is on the horizon, but with a husband 20 years my senior, I get to keep feeling Young! ;)


  10. I love exploring cemeteries. I guess this enjoyment it goes back to early childhood when my mom and I would walk to the local prairie cemetery and tend the graves of my grandmother and grandfather, whom I’d never met. The both died when my parents lived in the east, where I was born. We always brought a rake to smooth over the pebbles that covered them. I would run around the headstones, taking care not to step on the graves, and read them all. I was fascinated with the baby graves, so many of them in those days long ago, many with a little lamb on the marker. One grave puzzled me. It was outside the graveyard. “A suicide,” my mother explained in a sad voice. Those words stayed with me, but that’s another story.


  11. This is amazing. I, too, have a fascination with cemeteries thanks to a fifth grade field trip to our town’s historical one. One of my biggest travel regrets is not forcing my brother to stop at a local cemetery when we were driving the Road to Hana in Maui.


  12. My own interest in cemeteries always struck me as something to keep a secret, like it was somehow indecent or even unfair to feel any affinity for those quiet acreages. And because I have a record of depression, I worried it may even appear to be one of those ‘cry-for-help’ things if I ever asked a friend along on a cemetery jaunt!
    But I appreciate the instant change in mood when I enter the gates – more thoughtful & quiet-minded. And as someone up above worded it, there is ‘so much history under the soil.’ It does help put the days in some much needed perspective sometimes. And pay respects to all of the people one will never know.
    I always think of the custom of Trappist monks to dig a small portion of their own future grave every day as part of their meditations (a custom that is apparently untrue, yet still potent in it’s imagery…).


    1. That’s an intriguing image, however apocryphal–the monks attending to their own graves. I was actually thinking along similar lines when I ran across “marriage stones” where only one spouse is buried yet. I’m curious about the experience of a widow/er to those sites, the idea of knowing you’re also visiting your own grave…
      Being drawn to cemeteries seems to be a fairly wide-spread phenomenon, despite how we might worry about that “macabre” tendency in ourselves. ;) I think, as you point out, it’s a place of peace, a place to “connect” with something bigger than our lone little selves.


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