Stories in Stone

I have to confess that I love cemeteries. Doesn’t matter where they are – Spring Grove in Cincinnati with its majestic mausoleums or a tiny plot tucked next to a country church – I’ll slam on the brakes to spend an hour walking among tombstones. Anytime is a good time to visit a cemetery, as historian Shirley Wajda points out in this post.

A community’s local history isn’t necessarily recorded in ink or collected by a museum. The WPA Writers’ Project of Ohio understood this when they created The Ohio Guide. The writers sought stories to add to what Harlan Hatcher, the Project’s director, called “the usual data about the State.” The writers talked with “venerable citizens who know things not written in the histories,” and they traveled “the highways and by-roads through towns, villages, and farmlands, to report what Ohio is like at this moment and to tell the story of how it came to be.”

The writers found that the venerable citizens often pointed them to the local cemetery. Other workers in the Writer’s Project were recording the information on every gravestone in many of the state’s cemeteries. All history, they discovered, was like all politics: local. A visit to a community’s cemetery was like walking into history. Twenty-one cemeteries are listed in The Ohio Guide.

Cemetery tourism at the beginning of the 21st century is increasingly popular. Check any newspaper in October, and you’ll find tours of historic cemeteries sponsored by local heritage organizations. Some of these feature local tragedies as “ghost” or “haunted” walks, but many more are based on a more dignified exploration of a community’s past.

For many small, volunteer historical societies in Ohio, the local cemetery is the primary—and sometimes the only—historic artifact with which to engage the public in the past. Lacking any collections and a permanent home, the Vienna Historical Society, for example, began in 2008 to document the historic section of the Township’s cemetery. In 2010, the Society began offering cemetery walks dedicated to an annual theme. Preservation days bring together community members and students to clean gravestones, and fundraising has resulted in the professional restoration of several important gravestones. All this focus on community history has increased residents’ shared sense of place and, as the information is shared via the Society’s website, others have visited the cemetery.

A community’s “story” may be best told in stone. And perhaps it’s better to use the plural here, for there are many stories in a cemetery’s gravestones. Of course, biographies of local leaders, whether famous or infamous, are easily discovered. Gravestone art and symbolism tells us much of local carvers, sculptors, and masons, the social status of the interred, and fit into larger movements in social and cultural history. The lives of women and children, of the poor and marginalized, are memorialized in cemeteries when they aren’t visible in the historical record. Veterans’ graves relate a given community to larger national and international conflicts. Even the vegetation tells us of funerary practices and pilgrimages of earlier generations. Vienna’s cemetery is crisscrossed in spring with wild strawberry blossoms, forget-me-nots, and daffodils. Here and there are flowering bushes that have burst the ceramic pots that once held them, the potsherds barely beneath the earth’s surface, surviving alongside the markers.

Shirley Wajda, Ph.D, is an independent historian living in the Connecticut Western Reserve. She is the creator of Viennapedia (http://viennapedia.wikispaces.com), a wiki devoted to her hometown of Vienna, Ohio. She likes cemeteries, too, which makes her a ideal travel companion!