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What awaits beyond the cemetery gates …?
Drive through any town, city or countryside and it’s not very long before you pass by a cemetery. They are as big a part of our scenery and everyday lives as buildings and houses. We know what they are; they are the final resting places of the dead. Most of us know people who have been buried in them, and we also know that one day we will most likely end up in one as well.
Journey into the cemetery and beyond with author Minda Powers-Douglas and meet cemetery sextons, gravediggers, preservationists, writers, artists, authors, ghost hunters, the director of a funeral museum, a genealogist, and an assortment of taphophiles (people who love cemeteries). Discover what’s really behind our attitudes toward death, graveyards and those resting inside them. Find out what is superstition and what’s fact in this insightful and often funny guide into the world of cemeteries.
You’ll meet British horror author Simon Clark, “low-brow” artist Madame Talbot, genealogy author and lecturer Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Jon Austin from the Museum of Funeral Customs, and New Orleans Voodoo Priestess Miriam, as well as many more intriguing individuals.
Come explore the dark side … it’s not as scary as you think.
You’ll never look at a cemetery the same way again.
Yet there is something mysterious about cemeteries. Stones rising up from the ground, like old, jagged teeth. The image of decomposing bodies six feet under the surface. Ghosts and boogeymen lurking inside every mausoleum. While it sounds like I’ve been watching too many “B” horror movies (which I have), these are the strange notions many people have about cemeteries. While spooky stories are fun to tell and listen to, we must look beyond them when we step into a cemetery. There is history, art and meaning to be found there.
People have been burying their dead since civilizations began. Disposing of the bodies may have been one of the early reasons for burial (once Ungah Bungah realized that Urk wasn’t smelling or looking too hot in the caveman days, he probably performed the first burial then and there). For others later on, burial was linked to resurrection. According to the Web site IfIShouldDie .co.uk regarding Christian funerals, the “belief is one of resurrection and the continuation of the human soul, which is usually dependent on how life on earth has been lived” (3). The main reason in recent history for burials, though, is memorial. Cemeteries are believed to be sacred places to many people, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof.
There are as many types of cemeteries as there are cultures and beliefs. There are burial mounds, church graveyards, small family cemeteries, garden or rural cemeteries, urban cemeteries, veteran cemeteries, private cemeteries, lodge or fraternal cemeteries, ethnic cemeteries, mass burial sites, lawn cemeteries with the stones flush to the ground, pet cemeteries, mausoleums, cremation tombs, scattering grounds, ecological cemeteries, etc. The word “cemetery” (Greek for “sleeping chamber”) was made popular in the early 1830s after several garden cemeteries opened. Garden cemeteries (also known as rural cemeteries) are large, sprawling and the most like parks. In fact, cemeteries were the first public parks, since people would use them as places to socialize and entertain themselves as well as for paying visits to their loved ones.
Love of cemeteries prompts Moline woman’s book, magazine, Web site
By David Burke | QUAD-CITY TIMES | Comments(0)
When Minda Powers-Douglas invited her co-workers to a lunchtime picnic in the park a few years ago, they balked when she turned her car into a cemetery.
“They said, ‘Not the memorial park,’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’” the Moline woman said.
“Now, they love it. There’s tons of people who use this as a park — as they should.”
Powers-Douglas, 32, has parlayed her fascination with cemeteries into a just-published book, magazine and Web site for herself and other taphophiles (those with an interest in graveyards).
“I blame it on my mother,” Powers-Douglas said with a laugh, as she walked the roads of Davenport’s Oakwood Cemetery at dusk. “She used to take me to cemetries. We’d just treat it as a day in the park.”
Halloween, and the entire month of October, is a time for horror stories and urban legends set in cemeteries. But Powers-Douglas doesn’t pay any attention to them.
“Death’s kind of a taboo thing, so a cemetery, ooh, that’s spooky,” she said. “But it’s not spooky.
“These people are quiet, they do their own thing.”
Powers-Douglas views cemeteries as “beautiful, gorgeous places” full of art and history.
She’s turned that appreciation into a book, “Cemetery Walk,” which will have its debut with a reception next weekend. Last month, she published the first issue of Epitaths magazine, a quarterly with 50 subscribers in four countries and 19 states. And more than 6,200 Web surfers have “paid their respects” at her Web site, www.thecemeteryclub.com, since it started 17 months ago.
Two years ago, Powers-Douglas said, “I either took the plunge or lost my mind” and made her hobby public. She had been working for Girls Make a Difference, a self-esteem building program for teenage girls, for the previous five years, and the program was coming to an end. She has also worked at Palmer College of Chiropractic for the past 10 years, as a writer and editor in its marketing and communications department.
She began researching cemeteries, including Oakwood (the last resting place of the Davenport and Bettendorf families, several Putnams, von Maurs and jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke) and Riverside Cemetery in Moline, just blocks away from both where she lives now with her husband, Bill, and from her childhood home.
“I love it. It’s where I go when I want to take a walk or spend some time by myself, to think about things or not think about things,” Powers-Douglas said. “It’s a home away from home.”
While cemeteries may have the reputation for being a bit creepy, Powers-Douglas said they didn’t start out that way.
“They were the first parks, because there really weren’t any parks at that time,” she said. “If there was a pond, they’d swim in it. They’d have picnics, they’d take carriage rides. And it was a place where they could mourn, which was a good thing to do.”
She and her husband (an artist, a teacher at Figge Art Museum and musician in the band Einstein’s Sister and duo Douglas & Tucker) have gone to cemeteries in Salem, Mass.; Bangor, Maine; and New Orleans. Powers-Douglas said her favorite cemeteries are the above-ground crypts in New Orleans, and she’s received reports that they escaped relatively unscathed from Hurricane Katrina.
Powers-Douglas said there’s a misunderstanding about cemeteries and their purpose.
“Obviously, we bring our dead here to lay them to rest. But that’s not just what cemeteries are. They’re beautiful places. You can learn about the communities,” she said.
Oakwood, she said, provides a variety of grave markers, from the simple to the elaborate, decorative — and expensive — headstones.
“This isn’t just for some dead person underneath,” she said. “It says, ‘This person lived an amazing life, and we don’t want to forget it.’”
Powers-Douglas has befriended Deb Millhollin, office manager at Oakwood, in her educational and recreational trips to the cemetery.
“I can understand the interest. There’s a quiet, peaceful restful place,” Millhollin said. “She’s got an interest in how cemeteries operate, an interest in maintaining and the process and all that.”
Powers-Douglas sees an interest in cemeteries growing, as younger people want to know more about their roots.
“Genealogy has always been popular, but there seems to have been a huge swing. People want to find out who they are,” she said.
Those with an interest in cemeteries are usually rather quiet about it, Powers-Douglas said.
“They think they’re the only ones,” she said, as the topic of her first column in the inaugural edition of Epitaths last month. “If you turn over any stone, you’ll find someone who loves a cemetery.
“And that stone will probably have writing on it.”
David Burke can be contacted at (563) 383-2400 or email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
What: “Cemetery Walk” book launch
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Where: Student union, Palmer College of Chiropractic, 1000 Brady St., Davenport
How much: Free
Information: (309) 781-7083 or www.thecemetery club.com; the book will be available at Borders, Davenport; and through Minda Powers-Douglas’ Web site.
An Accidental Taphophile Takes a 'Cemetery Walk'
Reviewed by Linnea Crowther, author and obituary writer
I'm what Minda Powers-Douglas calls an "Accidental Taphophile" - someone who may not have been born with a love for cemeteries, but grew into it by chance. Apparently, I even followed a not-too-unusual path to my taphophilia: I started taking my daily walk in a cemetery near my apartment because it was quiet, shady, and free of traffic. Over time, my pace got slower and slower as I stopped more and more to look at the graves I was passing. My interest grew, and these days I'm apt to baffle my friends by saying things like, "Ooh, we're going to be in the west suburbs? Can we stop by Mt. Carmel Cemetery to visit the Italian Bride?"
Taphophile that I am, I was ready to thoroughly enjoy Cemetery Walk, and I was not disappointed in the least. It's full of cemetery information, anecdotes, and legends. Powers-Douglas has visited cemeteries around the country - taking pictures, interviewing employees and visitors, and digging up local history (no pun intended!). Some of the cemeteries she includes are ones I've visited and loved, and others are ones I'd love to visit. If you're a taphophile too, you're likely to be intrigued by more than one of the cemeteries or individual graves she illuminates; you just might end up planning a road trip to Salem, Massachusetts, or Davenport, Iowa.
But Cemetery Walk is not just for cemetery lovers - and it's not just about cemeteries. Powers-Douglas has also studied the rituals and traditions surrounding death in various eras, religions, and regions. She's spoken to embalmers, artists, activists, and the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, all in an effort to help demystify death and break down the taboos surrounding it. Readers can learn a bit about the Victorian mourning tradition, the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, the Salem witch trials, and the eerie vibes permeating Lizzie Borden's house. Cemetery Walk is a romp through all things related to death and remembrance.
That might sound like a paradox, but that's the thing: it really is a romp - that's what makes it such a fun and accessible book. Powers-Douglas loves her subject, and it shows. You can just picture her bouncing in her seat at the thought of a beautiful, centuries-old and well-preserved gravestone. But despite her delight in cemeteries, she does take her subject seriously and would never make light of the weight that a loved one's death can put on us - instead, she shows how a fitting remembrance can help lift that weight.
There's no need to fear that this book will be an esoteric listing of facts and figures and yawns, readable only by the true devotee. Cemetery Walk is for cemetery lovers and dilettantes alike. If you think a walk through a cemetery would be depressing or boring, try reading this book and you just might think again. The wide variety of stories, interviews, and odd little tangents breathes life into the subject of death.
Anyone who's ever been able to set foot into a cemetery without saying "Ick!" or "Eek!" - and I think we're in the majority - should be able to find something to enjoy in this book. You don't have to be a mortician or a Goth to like Cemetery Walk. If you've got an interest in history or genealogy, you're sure to find tidbits of interest. If you love a spooky tale, you'll find a few good ones. If you've faced the death of a loved one - and I think that's pretty much all of us - you can find solace in the book's celebration of remembrance.
And, of course, if you're a taphophile like Minda Powers-Douglas, don't think twice - turn to page one and prepare for a good read. (9/2005)
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