Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Cemeteries provide intriguing, moving glimpse at region’s history

A number of years ago an editor at The Spokesman-Review observed with some humor that it appeared I’d worked my way into covering the cemetery beat.

I had begun writing Landmarks, the every-other-week feature focusing on monuments, homes, other structures, sites and objects (I once wrote about a fire hydrant) and the people behind them, connecting them to earlier days of the region’s development.

With some of the stories featuring people from days gone by, there were no real remaining artifacts other than grave markers. These were especially impactful when telling the story of an unsolved murder from long ago or perhaps showing simple tombstones for some of the big names of Inland Northwest history.

And so I began to acquaint myself with many of the cemeteries of the area. No matter what kind of map I’d have, locating a particular grave stone was usually a challenge, and I’d often flag down a groundskeeper to help me in the task. I’ve brushed back limbs and decades of pine needles in nonendowed areas, dodged sprinklers and trudged through rural graveyards with no map at all and just the hope that the place was small enough that I could find what I was looking for – and get the photos taken before the thunderstorm hit, the snow fell or it got too dark.

It’s always been an interesting enterprise and frequently moving, as I’d see markers for babies as well as those of fallen soldiers. But then I’ve always found cemeteries intriguing, not the spooky places of literature and film, but rather keepers of our historical record.

I think it got started for me when I took my young sons on a visit to a childhood friend of mine in Boston and she served as a guide for us through historic Massachusetts. When we were at Walden Pond, we told them about Henry David Thoreau’s days there, and my friend said we could visit his grave. When the boys learned he was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in nearby Concord, they were all in.

It was a rainy day, gloomy and misty. Perfect, they thought, for cemetery visiting. But alas, no headless horseman appeared. We also visited the tombstones of other early American notables buried there – such as Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I got to tell them about such works of American literature as “Little Women” and “The House of Seven Gables,” though they probably weren’t ready yet for Emerson.

Not long after, my sons began taking piano lessons at the Fort Wright Music Academy and we’d drive past Greenwood Memorial Terrace and Riverside Memorial Park on the way there. We were often early – a bad habit of mine – so when it looked like we’d be way too early, I’d drive into one of the cemeteries and park at one of the lawns.

I’d remind the boys to be respectful as they moved about, and I’d challenge them to a competition. They had to stay within a particular area, and they had a specific time limit. One time I’d have them try to find the gravestone with the oldest birth date on it. Or one with a Civil War insignia. Or a World War I or II indicator. Or a person who died at the oldest age (this involved math). Or a stone with a poem inscribed. Or the most ornate marker.

When time was up, each would have to show me what he thought was the best choice. And, of course, the winner got to lord it over his brother for the rest of the afternoon. And they’d test me, too, asking questions about things they’d seen. I love those kinds of spontaneous sharing and learning moments.

When they’d spot a large monument and ask who was the person buried there, occasionally I’d recognize the name of one of the region’s pioneers and could say a few things about him. But most of the time, I’d have to look things up later – later, when the questioners’ interest had already moved on, but I’d tell them briefly what I could anyhow.

So to my children, cemeteries weren’t spooky places; they were places where you could learn things, especially about the history of the people and places where you live. I kind of like that.

So I’m quite happy to unofficially have the cemetery beat. I still like to learn things. And the cemeteries of the area – any area, actually – are places perfect for doing just that.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at columnists.

More from this author