I recently met a woman tending to her grandparents grave, a bit frustrated by the misaligned bricks that formed a border around the headstone. I asked her a few questions about the bricks, and she told one of the most touching stories I’ve ever heard.
Her grandmother died in 1963. Her grandfather visited the cemetery every day, lovingly tending to flowers and making sure all looked perfect. “Look at those bricks,” she said. “Those are not ordinary bricks.” Indeed, she was right. The cream-colored bricks he used to surround the flowers were very solid; not like you see used in modern construction. They came from Holland; in fact from the very wall where her grandfather had proposed to his future wife. A friend in Europe had warned him that the wall was to be torn down, so he arranged to purchase the bricks of a site that meant so much to him. Now they guarded the space around their graves. He tended the flowers for nearly 20 years until his own death.
This is one beautiful example of the stories you can find in cemeteries. A visit to a cemetery can provide a wealth of family history information, but it can be much more than that. A 20-minute walk through any cemetery will provide you access to family stories. Parents who lived long, full lives. Others who died much too young. Babies, some just one day old. Some who were never born. John and Jane Does, victims of murder. And in many older cemeteries, some of the departed rest with no visible monuments. Their markers were damaged or swallowed up in soft ground or by encroaching woods.
Observe the different monuments. Some are massive obelisks, others plain, square markers. A few are made from unusual materials. Some display incredible artistry. In many German cemeteries you will see monuments with engraved hands pointing to Heaven. Angels, crosses and even anchors are common subject of monument carvings.
In one cemetery I found a marker made from steel plate, welded with the deceased boy’s vital information: “Ronald Lee Gister (Butch), 5-4-1941 to 4-18-1949.” I had to know more about it, so I did some online research. The young boy’s father, Leo J. Gister Jr., at the time worked as a molder at a small foundry. It’s a good bet that he made the marker for his boy. We don’t know if it was made out of economic necessity or love. Most likely both. Butch’s marker stands out in my mind among the thousands of larger, more ornate headstones. This one is special.
Some cemeteries are known more for their infamy, such as Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin. I chronicled that story for The Hanneman Archive in “A Sad Resting Place for Little Ida.” It is disheartening to see a cemetery fall into neglect and disrepair.
Military cemeteries and the graves of soldiers are especially touching. I recall walking row after row of World War I grave markers in Ypres, Belgium, where the famous poem In Flanders Fields was composed in 1915. All of those young lives cut short by “the war to end all wars.” Such sacrifice. World War I cemeteries dot the landscape in Belgium; some in the middle of farm fields.
While our loved ones are gone, they can teach us still. There are great resources available to help you find where your relatives are buried. My favorite online database is the Find A Grave web site. Take a camera along on your next trip to the cemetery and help your fellow genealogists document history.
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