When I was a child, our family would visit cemeteries each Easter and Memorial Day.  We would visit my mother’s family one holiday and my father’s on the other.   

After my father died 45 year ago, my cemetery visits stopped.  I married 40 years ago, and in all these years, we only visited a cemetery when my mother and aunt Vi died in 2003 and in 2007 when my mother in law died.  So it was that my son, Nick was not raised with the habit of visiting the dead.  (We didn’t baptize him or take him to church either).

Does anyone still visit cemeteries?  I never see anyone in the cemeteries I pass by.  We (as a people) still honor the dead, but the sincere honors are informal affairs, so candles, flowers and pictures placed near where the deceased lived, or where he or she died.  We still bury the dead, and still erect grave stones, but as far as visiting, I don’t think we do much of it anymore. 

Death was much closer to everyday life in the 19th century.  Many babies died at or shortly after birth, so did many mothers - the births and deaths occurred at home.  Old folks (which included men and women in their 50s) died at home too.  

If you were not poor, you erected a gravestone.  In small towns burial was in a churchyard.  In larger towns churchyards gave way to formal cemeteries - often landscaped like parks - and typically at the edge of town.  After death, families made regular visits to the cemetery to mourn their dead.  They would bring a picnic lunch and pass the time with the loved one.  It seems macabre now, but that is how it was.  And if you think about travel before the automobile, a trek to the edge of town (where most cemeteries were) would take an hour or so.  A picnic lunch made sense. 

I have gotten interested in cemeteries as a volunteer for Find-a-Grave.  

Find-a-grave asks for volunteers to take pictures of a grave stone so that a memorial can be established.  The requests come generally from family members, sometimes from friends.  Sometimes they come from anonymous folks who “collect” memorials on Find-a-Grave’s website.  I have managed to find a few graves, or to confirm that someone’s grave was unmarked (as occurs with paupers and babies).

Today I went to the historic cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in Rockaway NJ looking for the grave of Jimmy Doerr, high school friend of the requestor.  

I have been to this cemetery many times - it is in my neighborhood.  Depending on where I take a bike ride, I may pass it on the way home.  I also know the sexton, the man who maintains the graves.  No one works harder than Robert Nichols, sexton at the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway NJ. 

The cemetery itself started as a churchyard but over time transformed itself into a landscaped l garden cemetery It is a beautiful space.  

Before I became familiar with cemeteries I held the idea that 19th century folks didn’t mourn their kids - since death was much more common.  But it is clear that they did.  Perhaps not the ones who died as babies.  But the family of little Nelson clearly mourned him.

And so did Robbie’s parents.  

Though some lived to their 70s and even later, Jane died in her 19th year.  Mary Jones died in her first year, and Margaret was a 26 year old wife when she died.  

In cemeteries is towns like Rockaway, you can see common surnames.  In this one, there are many Stickles and Dickersons.   The Dickerson's are in the oldest part of the cemetery, the part that was originally just the churchyard,  

The church works hard to keep the graves clean and to preserve stones that have sunk or fallen.  But most of old families that created the church and parish have long ago moved away. The families that erected large markers and mausoleums would no doubt agree with the phrase, "Sic transit gloria mundi."

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Comment by alsoknownas on September 6, 2017 at 6:06am

A favorite place in my childhood neighborhood was the Pioneer Cemetery. Imaging people's lives by looking at their names and times on earth seemed like history in the making. It was just fantasy.

I like this piece.

Comment by Terry McKenna on September 6, 2017 at 6:15am

Thank you.  One thing that occurs to me is how names have gone out of fashion.  Thus, where are all the Phoebes?  And even Janes are far less common than they once were.  

Comment by koshersalaami on September 6, 2017 at 6:42am

Names are cyclical. Many repeat every three or four generations. 

Visiting the dead may in part be a question of convenience, aside from some traditional days of the year. My mother in law visits graves on I think Memorial Day. 

When I still lived in North Carolina, I visited my son's grave pretty frequently. Last time we were down is the first time we didn't on a trip there and it bothers me. My wife says our memories of him are not at the cemetery. But we go, and the tradition is to leave a pebble at the stone of a grave you visit. 

My father's grave was very far from where we lived. It has only just occurred to me as I write this that his grave is now just a few hours from here, since I moved. I have a lot of family at that cemetery, including his parents. My mother's parents are out on Long Island and I have great grandparents buried in the City somewhere. I haven't been there since the sixties. I found the graves of great great grandparents in that cemetery. 

I like cemeteries. They're pretty and quiet places. 

I once posted a photo of a Jewish cemetery in Stowe, VT. It's pretty recent. There was a single gravestone in the whole cemetery. My first reaction was that it looked lonely and my second was Thank God it's lonely. 

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on September 6, 2017 at 8:32am

I believe the first piece of yours that I read was some yrs back abt memorial Day and it had a very interesting btake so I aired it. This, too, is excellent.

Comment by Terry McKenna on September 6, 2017 at 8:38am

Thanks Jonathan.  I was raised in a traditional Catholic home by parents whose practice matched their beliefs. 

Prayers for the dead were common enough. 

I still retain the culture if not the belief.

Comment by Rosigami on September 6, 2017 at 9:02am

Cemeteries seem so strange to me, but fascinating places, and some quite beautiful, as your images show. I never want to be a denizen. Make me ashes, and release them, that's my plan.

While he was alive, my father visited my sister's grave weekly. My mother still goes at least that often. (Sis died in 2005; has a pretty pink marble marker. I've never been there but seen a picture)

My father's ashes are housed in a crypt. My step mom visits often. 

Somehow my entire family ended up in New Jersey after I grew up- I've never lived there. 

Comment by Terry McKenna on September 6, 2017 at 10:04am

Thanks Rosi.

Comment by Boanerges on September 6, 2017 at 2:00pm

I've never visited my parents' graves. Seems pointless to me -- they're not there.

That said, cemeteries can be wonderful places for quiet contemplation. There are several around this village -- two main ones and several smaller, including family sites.

One marker I came across honoured a veteran of the US Civil War named Thomas Henry Nichols, who died here in 1937. Thanks to a someone from this area's Find A Grave (or similar) operation, I was able to find out a lot more about how a kid from Nova Scotia wound up in the Union army, survived and migrated west after the war. You can read part of his story here -- if you've a mind to.

Comment by Terry McKenna on September 6, 2017 at 2:50pm

Thanks Bo.  Read your link too.  Nice piece.  Re my parents gravestone, I only visited for the first time (since my mother's death in 2003) a few years ago.  Long ago (like when I was a kid) the cemetery butted up against Boonstra's Dairy.  My father loved their buttermilk.  I assume he has all he wants now. 

Comment by alsoknownas on September 6, 2017 at 7:01pm

I think this will cause me to go back and walk through that Pioneer Cemetery of my youth.

It's close by...haven't moved far. A favorite book of mine I may re-visit is Edgar Lee Masters "Spoon River Anthology".

Another screwy habit is reading obits. Fascinating to me.


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