Category Archives: cemeteries

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.

The circle of life in a cemetery

The colors are still brilliant on this beautiful November morning.

The colors are still brilliant on this beautiful November morning as we walked in the cemetery.

Walking the dogs this morning, I was musing over the life and death of a cemetery.

I walk in several cemeteries, from historic Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY, with its hills and dales, forests and lawns, prominent residents, and myriad headstones and monuments, to a small rural cemetery in Pittsford, NY, much smaller but no less interesting.

But the cemetery where I walk most often is White Haven Memorial Park. It’s close to my house, and because it’s a lawn park layout – open spaces and no headstones, only flat markers in the ground – it’s the perfect place to work with my dog Bailey, who has struggled with reactivity issues. We can walk here with few distractions, and the maintenance workers are patient as I’ve worked to counter-condition the dog to the sound of their work carts and machines.

Plus, the chipmunk and squirrel population is far smaller here than in the more forest-like cemeteries.

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White Haven Memorial Park in Pittsford, NY (c) 2015 Joanne Brokaw

So while I love meandering in the older, more historic or unusual cemeteries, and do so when I have hours to kill, when we just need to stretch our legs, the dogs and I head to White Haven.

And on a walk today, it struck me how the circle of life is played out in a cemetery.

It’s a gorgeous day here in Western NY, early November and temperatures in the 70s. But even with the sun shining bright in the sky, it’s clear life itself is winding down for a season.

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The trees are reluctant to shed their leaves.

The trees, so green and lush in the summer, began changing colors a few weeks ago, brilliant colors that were almost too beautiful to look at. Now, they’re in varying stages of undress, reluctantly shedding their leaves as winter approaches.

The Heart Tree at White Haven Memorial Park, October 23, 2015

The Heart Tree at White Haven Memorial Park, October 23, 2015

At White Haven, there’s a tree I call the Heart Tree. A week or so ago, it was alive with color. Today, it stands naked.

The Heart Tree at White Haven Memorial Park, November 3, 2015

The Heart Tree at White Haven Memorial Park, November 3, 2015

White Haven is also an Audubon Nature Habitat. In the back part of the cemetery area has unmowed fields and a forest with walking trails. There’s a natural burial area where cremated remains are buried with wildflower seeds, the dead bringing forth life in every spring.

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White Haven’s fields and nature trails (c) 2015 Joanne Brokaw

Throughout the main part of the cemetery, deer often roam the manicured acres, likely lured by the fruit trees that have dropped piles of cherries and are now laden with apples. At other cemeteries where we walk, squirrels and chipmunks are also rampant, scurrying around the headstones and up the trees with nuts and other nourishment to carry them through the winter.

Apple tree at White Haven Memorial Park.

The apple trees are laden with fruit at the cemetery. (c) 2015 Joanne Brokaw

This morning, birds sing the song of fall as we walked, and kept a watchful eye over the mourners who sat in solitary lawn chairs under the bright morning sun, the dew glistening on the graves of those slumbering beneath.

In a few weeks, all will be barren as winter sets in, ushering in a time for rest and reflection. In the spring, the cycle will begin again. Eggs will hatch and birds will fledge, trees will bud and flowers bloom, and new life once again emerge from winter’s night, guided by the spirits of those have gone before.

RELATED POSTS:

Life in the cemetery (fall foliage pictures)

Mt. Hope Cemetery – and wildlife habitat