Category Archives: cemeteries

Big Knockers, Fringe Festival, and Local Characters

When my friends Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young first told me about their show “Big Knockers: Debunking The Fox Sisters”, which would be performed at the 2017 Rochester Fringe Festival, I did a little dance of joy.

The show is a spoof on the Fox Sisters, often credited with founding the American Spiritualist movement thanks to their claims that they could communicate with the spirit world via a system of rappings or knockings.

If you read my blog or follow me on social media, you know that for the last couple of years I’ve been researching and writing a book about…well, it started as a book about Mt. Hope Cemetery, but it’s now rabbit trailed all over the place as I’ve encountered fascinating stories about Rochester’s history and the unknown residents who lay buried, often in unmarked graves, not only in Mt. Hope but other local cemeteries.

I’ve got piles of research notes, chapter drafts, and half-written blog posts on everyone from Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody to American aviatrix Blanche Stuart Scott, from clairvoyant physician Mrs. Dr. Jennie C Dutton to murder victim Emma Moore.

So when I offered to provide Kerry and Abby with some research that might help them put the Fox sisters in context with local history, they told me to send along anything I wanted. I went through my files and then inundated them with stories about local inventors, mediums, and clairvoyant physicians. I sent newspaper clippings and wrote rambling paragraphs outlining crazy stories that have fascinated me for years. I spouted facts and dates. I sent links to stories I’d already written.

And then I apologized a hundred times for overloading them with information.

And then they thanked me, and told me that they used what I’d sent them to help form the characters and stories in the show.

By that time, I’d already auditioned for and gotten a part in “Big Knockers”, so I was over the moon that these people who have lived for years in my head and in file folders would have their stories heard. But even better? I got to bring one of my favorite women to life: I play a notorious local madam named Matilda Dean.

While the “Big Knockers” writers obviously had to take liberties with dates and story lines in order to make it all work for the show (and add the humor), the characters actually are based on real people, and much of details they share about themselves are true. [update: here’s the review in City Newspaper] So for those of you want to know more, here is the “Big Knockers” backstory. Keep in mind that these are just small snippets of information; much more lies in folders piled up on my desk, waiting to find a home in blog posts and book chapters. Or who knows? Maybe on another stage?

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National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery

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National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!

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Groundhogs, coffin parts, and other cemetery surprises

One of the handles I found while walking in the cemetery. Nearby, I also found part of a human skull.

One of the coffin handles I found while walking in the cemetery. It had been hauled to the surface by a burrowing groundhog.

I was out recently with my Border collie Bandit when he came upon a groundhog hole. That’s not unusual; the cemetery where I often walk is a certified habitat with the National Wildlife Federation, and is crawling with squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, deer, birds, and foxes. It’s not the first time I’ve had a close encounter with critters while meandering among the dead.

What was unusual this time? Around the entrance to the hole were items the groundhog had hauled to the surface while tunneling. Items like casket handles and knobs, and pieces of rotted coffin wood, and a bone.

You heard me. A bone.

At first, I thought that maybe it was just a wooden ornament from the corner of a casket or maybe part of a statue from a headstone. But it didn’t feel like marble or wood. So I took photos and when I got home shared them with friends, including more than one person in the medical profession, and the consensus was unanimous: it was a human bone. A vertebra, to be precise.

Piled up around one groundhog hole were several coffin handles as well as a human vertebra.

Piled up around one groundhog hole were several coffin handles as well as a human vertebra. (It’s just under the metal handle in the middle of the photo.)

Let me be clear that I didn’t bring the bone home or even disturb the site too much. In fact, after taking photos (because I knew this was going to make a great story and I wanted photos to go with it), I carefully left everything where I found it and went right to the cemetery office to report it.

Turns out that not only are critters a common sight in the cemetery, so are bones. And springtime brings more frequent surprises above ground as the snow melts, the soil softens, and wildlife starts burrowing and nesting and tunneling.

In fact, a few days after this little adventure, I was back at the cemetery with my sister and a friend. I’d enlisted their help looking for a grave as part of research I’m doing for my next book. We stumbled onto another groundhog hole. In his debris pile? Another casket handle and part of a skull.

Another trip to the cemetery office to file another report.

I wanted to know how the cemetery deals respectfully with the remains that critters haul to the surface. Because of the extensive network of groundhog tunnels, there’s no way to know which casket parts, or body parts, come from which plot. And even if you were sure, you can’t just open up Aunt Susan’s grave to return her femur. (When I asked, one worker told me the largest bone someone ever found in the cemetery was a leg bone. A femur is the largest leg bone I can name, but it could just as easily have been a tibia.)

So what happens to the bones?

Cemetery workers fill the groundhog hole with whatever the critter has dug up – casket parts or bones or whatever else they’ve uncovered – and then they fill the hole with dirt. The theory, I assume, is that the groundhog will find another place to live and the spirits of the dead will understand the living have done the best they can under the circumstances.

One staff member explained that it’s a delicate balance between managing wildlife and caring for the remains of others’ loved ones. The cemetery is gorgeous – woods, grassy areas, hills and vales. It’s truly a beautiful place to be buried, and offers almost 200 acres of nature in the middle of the city, a place where you find bikers and joggers and people walking dogs. The living enjoy it as much as the dead, and clearly the animals are thrilled to be there, too.

But when they get to be a problem, when they’re wreaking havoc on graves, for example, traps are set and the critters are humanely relocated to wooded areas outside of the city. But even that’s not always easy to accomplish; walkers in the cemetery often open the traps to let the groundhogs loose. Not only does it thwart the cemetery’s efforts, it puts the human who opened the trap in danger.

Newsflash: Groundhogs bite.

When I walked by the first hole a few days later, it was clear the groundhog had not gotten the memo that this hole was closed for business. He’d burrowed back in and thrown out the casket handles and knobs, settling back into his old digs. The bone wasn’t anywhere in sight, so I assume he decided to get with the program and show some respect for his underground neighbors.

I’m still curious: what does it looks like down that groundhog hole? Has he scavenged any other interesting things, like jewelry? Teeth? Articles of clothing? When he burrows through a coffin, does he set up camp inside or just burrow out the other side and move on with his business? Do the dead mind the disturbance or are they grateful for the company?

And what about those bones, permanently dislocated from their owners? When I was a child, a pastor told our congregation that when our bodies are resurrected they will come together to be made whole before we ascend to the heavens. That made organ donation a dangerous prospect. As a child, I had nightmares about being being called up from the grave in the Rapture, only to have living humans explode as my donated organs were called back to their original home.

The experience with the groundhog and his underground activities only reinforced something I’ve believed for a very long time, that we are not bodies with souls but instead souls with bodies, and that when we shed our mortal homes our spirits journey on while our earthly shells return to the ground, to the elements, to dust. We are one with the earth, and with its creatures, both above and below ground.

Musings on life, death, and wildlife (and Prince)

Exploring a ravine at Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Exploring a ravine at Mt. Hope Cemetery.

When I heard the news that Prince had died, I was in the cemetery. I’d been there for hours with my sister Jackie and my friend Linsay, exploring the hills and dales, and mostly tracking critters . We spotted groundhogs, remarked on the number of chipmunks, stumbled (literally) upon a Prehistoric looking amphibian, and investigated critter dens.

A most unusual amphibian.

A most unusual amphibian.

Can you find the critter in this photo?

Can you find the critter in this photo?

We made some unusual discoveries. I learned, for example, that in Scotland, where Linsay is from, there are no critters like groundhogs or chipmunks; in fact, other than Pepe LePew, she’s never seen a skunk. Or smelled one. That led to a discussion about removing skunk smell with tomato juice, which sounds really weird to someone who’s never smelled a skunk.

We also found parts of old caskets that critters had dragged to the surface, handles of varying shapes and sizes scattered here and there in the cemetery, and we imagined what life underground must be like for a groundhog.

Casket hardware outside another groundhog hole, in a different section of the cemetery.

Casket hardware outside another groundhog hole, in a different section of the cemetery.

I’d met a groundhog a few days earlier, sitting for 45 minutes next to his den to see if he’d emerge. He did, slowly. When he was fully exposed, we considered each other. Then he retreated down the hole and I went home. I’ve been thinking ever since about what it must be like underground, among the caskets and remains, what the groundhogs and chipmunks disturb, and if anyone minds. Continue reading

Groundhog holes and casket handles, oh my

Bandit and I, out for a walk at Mt. Hope.

Bandit and I, out for a walk at Mt. Hope.

Out for a walk this week, Bandit came upon a groundhog hole. Not unusual; the cemetery is a National Wildlife Federation “Certified Wildlife Habitat” and is crawling with squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, deer, and foxes. What was unusual? Around the entrance to the hole were items the groundhog had hauled to the surface while burrowing underground.

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Bandit found a groundhog hole with some interesting stuff in the dirt around it.

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Stuff Mr. Groundhog hauled up from under the ground.

I think the handles are from caskets, and, because they’re so different, probably different caskets. The wood is probably from a very old coffin. (I also found another small item that’s neither metal nor wood. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what it was.)

Out for another walk on a different day and in a different section of the cemetery, this time sans dog, I came across yet another groundhog hole, and lying right there in the open was more casket hardware.

Casket hardware outside another groundhog hole, in a different section of the cemetery.

Casket hardware outside another groundhog hole, in a different section of the cemetery.

I’ve been thinking about the groundhogs ever since. What do they do underground? How far underground do they venture from the hole? What do they do with items that are in their way? I’m assuming that over time they’ve hauled a lot of items to the surface and discarded them in dirt piles. Is it unusual to find stuff like this?

I’ve been tracking the groundhogs, so I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: Here’s a post I wrote for Patheos about my groundhog adventures.

Honor our sister suffragists by voting in today’s primary

Susan B. Anthony's grave, a popular place to visit on election day.

Susan B. Anthony’s grave, a popular place to visit on election day.

It’s primary day in New York. Honor suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who fought for the passage of the 19th amendment, and vote. Vote your conscience, vote your heart, vote your morals and beliefs. But make sure you vote.

Thank you, lady with the alligator purse.

This photo was taken at Mt. Hope Cemetery. Susan B. Anthony’s grave is located in Section C, Lot 93.

A history of the Charlotte lighthouse

The historical marker at the Charlotte cemetery, citing its notable residents, including the first lighthouse keeper.

The historical marker at the Charlotte cemetery, citing its notable residents, including the first lighthouse keeper.

If there’s a cemetery tour happening in Rochester, you can be sure I’m there. For anyone interested in local history, there’s no better place to find unusual stories and bits of trivia, and I’m fascinated by the history buried all around us. (Plus, I’m writing a book about people buried in Rochester who changed, intrigued or just amused the world, so I’m always on the lookout for more stories.)

A few weeks ago, the City of Rochester hosted the annual Genesee River Romance weekend  celebrating the Genesee River and its surrounding trail and gorge system. In 2014, I took full advantage of the weekend of events that include tours of the old subway and aqueducts, the Rundel Library, the Falls, and cemeteries. Somehow, I missed the adverts for this year’s event, so I only had time to catch one thing: the tour of Charlotte Cemetery…

You can read the rest of the story at RochesterSubway.com.