It’s Halloween. Seems like a good time to write about how much I enjoy graveyards. Doesn’t everyone find something to ponder in a graveyard?
When my parents moved our family from the lake into town, they bought a two-story house next to Mountain Home Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in Kalamazoo.
Created in the mid-1800s, Mountain Home Cemetery held the graves of many well known and wealthy people from the area. U.S. Senator Charles Stuart was buried there, as was Governor Epaphroditus Ransom, Henry and William Upjohn and many others.
The back and one side of our city lot was bordered by this 28-acre graveyard. There were no graves anywhere near our house. Instead, what we had was a beautiful park stretching up a hill behind our house, and along the street in front of our house. My second-story bedroom looked out over this long, sloping field lined by old maples and oaks.
In the winter, all the neighborhood kids (and there were dozens) slid down the back hill on sleds or saucers.
In the spring and summer, the grass and small wildflowers would wave fragrantly in the breeze.
I loved wandering the cemetery, reading the headstones, gawking at the elaborate designs of gravestones and mausoleums.
There was a gothic style building resembling a small stone chapel. It fascinated me. I learned years later that it had been built in 1878 as a receiving vault, where the bodies of people who owned cemetery lots could be kept until burial (sometimes bad weather delayed burials).
My sister, who was about 8 at the time, said she was fascinated by a doggy grave (or so we assumed). In the place of a standard gravestone, was a cement dog, lying peacefully yet alert. And at its front paws was a scroll bearing the tender words: "Mamie is not dead."
My sister, who at the time considered the cemetery her personal playground, said she pondered those words. She told me she’d read them and think, "Mamie is not dead. What does that mean?"
The grave marker that fascinated me, was made of gray marble and stood almost two stories high, as I remember. It was for John and Rhea Fetzer. John Fetzer founded WKZO broadcasting company in Kalamazoo in 1931. In the 1960s he bought the Detroit Tigers baseball team. His broadcasting empire was large and influential.
What fascinated me about this huge monolith with John and Rhea Fetzer’s names carved prominently on it, was that neither of them were dead. The Fetzers were as alive as I was, but there was this large marble memorial to them, ready to receive their bodies once their souls passed out of this life.
I didn’t know what to think about that.
Now, half a century later, my husband and I live in California’s Gold Rush territory. There are dozens of pioneer graveyards freckling these foothills, each containing blackened tombstones that record the difficult period. So many headstones for babies and toddlers and young women who died in childbirth.
I sometimes wander through these dusty graveyards, imagining the hard-scrabble lives remembered here. For gravestones and graveyards are testaments to life as well as death. For many, a tombstone is the only trace of their existence.
From the beautiful, park like cemetery of my childhood to the crumbling Gold Rush graveyards, I find these final resting places a tribute both to the people who died and to those who loved them enough to memorialize them with a headstone.
All these thoughts on Halloween.
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