For this month’s cemetery book review, I wanted to share an old favourite of mine. I first found out about Charles Wilkins’s book In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger’s Memoir, in the book section of Rue Morgue Magazine. Rue Morgue has always been a great resource for discovering new authors.
This book, first published in 2008, is a coming-of-age memoir set in a Toronto cemetery in 1969. It’s filled with weird-but-true events, that could only happen while working in a cemetery.
Here is the full book synopsis: “During the hazy summer of 1969, Charles Wilkins, then a student at the University of Toronto, took a job as a gravedigger. The bizarre-but-true events of that time, including a midsummer gravediggers’ strike, the unearthing of a victim of an unsolved murder, and a little illegal bone-shifting, play out amongst a Barnum-esque parade of mavericks and misfits in this macabre and hilarious memoir of mortality, materialism, and the gradual coming-of-age of an impressionable young man.” – Goodreads.com, In the Land of Long Fingernails
I enjoyed this book immensely, I couldn’t put it down! It’s a very easy read with great pacing. I found I devoured it quickly. I think it also helped that I felt a connection to this story because it takes place so close to me, in Toronto, Ontario. The specific Toronto cemetery is never named in the book, but being that I live about 4 hours away, I know I can visit it someday. There are some incredibly funny moments, but also some somber ones, creating a balance between the anecdotal stories. It’s a fascinating memoir but also a great insight into the everyday work life of a gravedigger in the late 60s.
I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a light read, that could also fall into the feel-good read category. It’s also a quick read, which would make it a perfect choice if you need a break from heavier or academic content.
I am always on the hunt for cemetery-related book recommendations. Please feel free to share yours in the comments. If you are an author and have a cemetery-related book you would like me to review, please reach out at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you.
Summertime is meant for road trips! In July, I went on a two-week vacation full of adventures. One of the trips I was looking forward to most on my vacation was visiting Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin is Canada’s first Provincial Park, having been founded in 1893.1 It’s a large and beautiful piece of wilderness, that also holds a mystery.
My 80-year-old mother joined me on this camping trip. It had been about 40 years since she last went camping, so I made sure we did all the fun camping things; sleeping in a tent, cooking on a fire, and making s’mores. There were a couple of other things on our to-do lists: visit Canoe Lake, search for Mowat Cemetery, and find the grave of Tom Thomson.
The story of Tom Thomson is an interesting one. Today, he is often referred to as the Canadian Van Gogh.2 And rightly so, his use of color and thick strokes vividly bring the northern landscapes to life. Thomson spent a lot of time painting and fishing in beautiful Algonquin Park. His love of the area must have been contagious as he soon had other painters joining him on his painting excursions. They even had a name for themselves, the “Algonquin Park School of painters”.3 You might recognize them more now as the Group of Seven. Unfortunately, Tom wouldn’t live long enough to see that recognition as he died mysteriously, two years prior. I would consider him a founding member, of the now famous group of painters.
There have been many things written about what happened to Tom Thomson on that fateful day in July. But to this day, no one knows for sure what happened. With so many varying accounts over the years, speculating what may have happened, the details of the events don’t seem to add up. We do know that Tom’s canoe was found on July 8th, but he was not. His body was found in Canoe lake, 8 days later on July 16th.4 He was found with bad bruising on his face and head, with a fishing line wrapped around his left or right ankle, depending on which account you read. In most accounts, the fishing line is seen as an indication of foul play. I don’t agree. I have been doing a lot of reading about this mystery and one thing that always stands out to me is the fishing line.
Tom’s body was found floating in the lake. Many people speculate that something heavy was tied to the fishing line to weigh the body down, that he was purposely drowned. BUT all the accounts mention that the body was tethered to the shore, and not removed immediately from the water. I think it would make sense that they would have used a fishing line to tether the body to the shore, which would account for the fishing line. One blog post I found corroborates this thought, but for some reason has not been looked at more closely. The blog post comes from a professional journalist, Robert Reid. In his blog post, Epistles from the Grave, Robert talks about letters that were written in the 1970s by Jack Wilkinson. He would have been six years old at the time of Tom’s death. These letters were written to correct some inaccuracies in the accounts that were circulating, most notably the fishing line. In the letters, Wilkinson confirmed that the fishing line was merely used to tether the body to the shore, so it would not float away until the coroner could be alerted and come collect the body.5 This would mean the fishing line had nothing to do with Tom’s death. Still, the questions persist—was it murder? Or was his death an accident? These details we may never know.
Tom was hastily buried at Mowat cemetery, sometimes referred to as Canoe Lake cemetery. This is not what his family wanted. They wanted him brought home. So his remains were exhumed the next day and transported to Leith, Ontario, near Owen Sound. There his remains were buried once again, and a proper headstone was erected.1 Here lies another facet of the mystery—many people claim his body was never moved.
Is that why people also claim to see a ghost in the early morning fog on Canoe lake? Over the years, many people have reported seeing a man slowly paddling a distinctive grey canoe through the still waters of the early morning.6What’s interesting about these sightings is that in life Tom Thomson had painted his canoe a unique dove-grey color, that he had mixed himself from his paints. This dove-grey canoe stood out among the identically colored canoes of the local lodges.1 Unfortunately, I was not able to find anyone in the park who had experienced any sightings firsthand.
Our search for his grave began on the morning of July 17th, which just so happened to be the 105th anniversary of Tom’s burial at Mowat Cemetery. We drove into Algonquin Park that morning, and after stopping in to check on our campsite at Tea lake, we decided to try and find the cemetery. I had been planning this trip since the early spring of this year and had been researching how to find the hidden cemetery. In early June, Back Road’s Bill, a local adventure/nature writer, published an article about the two graves of Tom Thomson, so I reached out to him about directions for reaching the cemetery. He was very helpful. With the coordinates locked into my Google Maps, I felt pretty confident that we could reach the cemetery.
That confidence wavered a little though when we visited the Canoe Lake Access Point Permit Office. We stopped in, after taking in the view of the infamous Canoe Lake, to buy some firewood and talk to the staff. The clerk was a young man, who had just started working at the permit office. He didn’t have any personal stories to share about the haunting of canoe lake but did have some interesting ideas about where Thomson may actually rest. He shared an interesting theory that the gravedigger that was hired to move the body had sent a coffin filled with dirt and rocks to the family, to approximate the weight of a body. He also told me that the cemetery can only be accessed by canoe and that the back roads I had pointed out are actually the train line, not a road. I was a little dismayed, but I had faith in Back Roads Bill and his map, so we continued on.
And good thing we did! The rail line the Permit office staff talked about was now a camp road. We followed it as far as we could, safely by car. At one turn-off the road became quite rough so we decided to park the car on the side of the road and continue on foot. This would turn out to be our hike for the day. It was a very nice walk in the lush woods of Algonquin Park. After walking for a time, we came upon some cottages on the lakefront. One cottage had a large family gathering outside, so we stopped and asked them for directions to make sure we were on the right path. They assured us we were and gave us some landmarks to go by, as there is no sign marking the cemetery. We continued on our way, trying to align ourselves with Canoe lake, and picture what it would look like to travel the route by canoe. We couldn’t easily see the lake. Unfortunately, the landmarks the cottagers gave were not the most helpful and we got a little turned around.
For an area that seems incredibly remote, there are a fair number of family cottages out there. We happened upon another cottage where it looked like they were packing up to go home. We asked again for directions. The gentleman we had asked was kind enough to walk with us to the entrance of the cemetery trail. We had gone a bit too far, having stayed to the left when we should have taken a right at the fork in the trail. His german shorthaired pointer puppy joined us, zooming back and forth past us as we walked. He told us how that day was the anniversary of Tom’s burial and how his family sometimes walked up to the cemetery to pay their respects. He didn’t have any ghost stories to share though. He brought us to the start of the cemetery trail, a small almost hidden trail that veers again to the right off of the bigger trail. We thanked him and continued on our way. This part of the trail was more rugged, with felled trees and a faint trail that was sometimes hard to distinguish in the wild forest. My mother said she was starting to have doubts at this point in our adventure, but those doubts faded when we came to a hill.
Sitting at the top of the hill we could see an old weathered fence and the supposedly 500 year old birch tree. It’s the largest birch tree I have ever seen! We happily climbed to the top and walked into Mowat cemetery. This small pioneer cemetery is a small remnant of the town of Mowat. This mill town was the largest in Algonquin Park and had about 500 residents in its heyday. The town included a hospital and school, as well as recreational lodges. Tom Thomson often frequented Mowat Lodge. The town began to dwindle, after the lumber recession.7 Today, all that remains of Mowat is the cemetery and a few cement foundations.
The cemetery is very small, with only a handful of grave markers. There is one field stone, and two engraved headstones within the picket fence. There is also a white wooden Latin cross, that marks the grave of Tom Thomson. It is thought that the cross was placed by the CBC in the 1960s for a documentary. There also seems to be a depression in the ground at his grave. There were a few grave goods left for Tom; a small electric tea light, some paint brushes and a fishing lure. There was no one at the cemetery when we visited, but I think Tom still receives his fair share of visitors.
Within the cemetery fence, there is a small grave marker for Alexander B Hayhurst, a child who died of diphtheria in 1915.
There is also a large flat gravestone for Ja’s Watson who is thought to be the first person buried at Mowat Cemetery. His stone is hardly legible now, but records say that the epitaph reads:
“In Memory of Ja’s Watson / The First White Person Buried / at / Canoe Lake / Died May 25 1897 being one of / about 500 employed at this Camp by / the Gilmour Lumbering Co. Aged 21 yrs / Remember Comrades (when passing by) / As you are now so once was I / As I am now so you shall be / Prepare thyself to follow me.”8
We spent a lot of time in the cemetery, trying to decipher the stones and admiring the enormous birch tree, and paying our respects to Tom Thomson. We tried to imagine what the cemetery would have looked like in 1917 when he was laid to rest. After a time we decided to head back down the hill and retrace our steps back to the car. It was a bit of a long journey, but it was incredibly rewarding. Back at our campsite we had a nice campfire supper of burgers and corn on the cob and talked about our visit to Mowat cemetery. We speculated on what might have happened to Tom and whether or not he was still laid to rest on that hill. My mother was very adamant that he was still there. After supper, we made some s’mores for dessert and enjoyed the campfire as it lit up the darkness of the night.
The next morning we decided to explore the park a little more before heading home. We stopped in at the Algonquin Art Centre to look around. This world-class art gallery showcases some of Canada’s foremost wilderness and wildlife artists.9 Outside, on the Centre grounds, we took a look at a set of plaques celebrating Tom Thomson. They told the story of Thomson as a painter, his attraction to Algonquin Park, his body of work, and his legacy as an artist. We also viewed an outdoor exhibit of painted canoes, called Tom Thomson’s Canoe Murals. We spent some time inside the gallery as well, taking some time to admire the gorgeous art gallery and browsing the gift shop. This is where I purchased my copy of Northern Light by Roy MacGregor.
Northern light: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him by Roy MacGregor is a very good read. It presents some really interesting theories as to what may have happened to Thomson, and also suggests that his body never left Mowat Cemetery. In the 1950s, a small group of men took it upon themselves to prove whether Tom was still buried in the cemetery on Canoe lake. They took some shovels, went up to the cemetery, and started digging. I think to even their surprise, they did find human remains. They took a few bone samples, including the skull, and sent them for analysis. The results were not what they expected and seemed to raise more questions.1 More recently, a facial reconstruction was attempted using photographs of the unearthed skull. The face that emerged was pretty uncanny, but does that mean the mystery is solved?10
I don’t think the mystery will ever truly be solved. I believe the truth of what happened to Tom Thomson went to the grave a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean people will stop trying to solve it. Stories will continue to be told about his tragic life, cut short. As much as Algonquin Park was a part of Tom’s life, his artwork is now a part of it as well. You can find his artwork at the Art Centre. You can see the inspiration for his art in the beauty of the wilderness. You can learn more about his life in the Visitor Centre, alongside the history of the land and the evolution of the communities within the park. Tom Thomson, whether it be his artwork, his story, or his ghost will continue to be a big part of Algonquin Park.
I really enjoyed my time exploring the park and searching for the grave of Tom Thomson. It was a rewarding trip, that let me explore nature while also learning more about art and Canadian history. It was one of the more challenging cemeteries to find, but it was a beautiful place to visit and photograph. My mother enjoyed this trip immensely. She was a bit leery at first, but the history drew her in. She talks about our trip often. Coincidentally, I started writing this blog post on what would have been Tom’s 145th birthday, August 5th, 2022. My mother shares his birthday.
Have you ever been to Algonquin Park? Have you seen the ghost of Tom Thomson? I would love to read your stories in the comments. If you are interested in reading more about the mysterious death of Tom Thomson, check out the links below.
Thanks for reading!
MacGregor, R. (2010). Northern light: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him. Vintage Canada.
Over the weekend, my friends and I went on a cemetery road trip.
We had it planned and mapped out for a while now and were excited to spend the day together while exploring cemeteries. We started bright and early and fully caffeinated.
I just finished going through all the photos I took on our adventures, all 957 of them. The first thing I always do after a cemetery adventure is, upload my photos to my computer and file them accordingly and get the number of cemeteries visited.
If you have been following me for a little bit now, you may remember that our record for cemeteries visited in one day is 13. Well, Saturday was a full day of adventures, and we have a new record!
A personal best. I have the best friends and travel companions a taphophile could ask for! I love that they love exploring cemeteries as much as I do, and enjoy a good challenge too.
It will take me a while to sort through my photos and get them posted. But they should be popping up on my social media channels and website soon. I will most likely write a more in-depth post about our day of adventures in the future as well. There were some fun surprises!
I am in the midst of working on a blog post about my adventures searching for the grave of Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park. I’m hoping to have it up in the next week or two. In the meantime, I thought I would take a look at some Egyptian revival architecture that can sometimes be found in cemeteries, more specifically—obelisks.
Obelisks are Egyptian in origin, but became a popular Christian funerary symbol. They are now a common sight in most cemeteries. I have found quite a few in my cemetery travels and wanted to share some of them with you today.
In Understanding Cemetery Symbols, Tui Snider notes that obelisks became popular symbols after Napoleon invaded Egypt in the late 1700s. An obelisk is thought to represent a ray of light, but it can also symbolize focused spiritual goals, with the wide base narrowing to a point, symbolizing the deceased reuniting with God at death, and the two becoming one.
Different variations of obelisks can be found throughout a cemetery. For example, Truncated obelisks do not come to a sharp point at the top, but are flat or topped with another symbol like a cross, urn or an orb.
Obelisks can sometimes be found at the center of a family plot, representing the family’s connection to God. They are particularly well suited for this, as there is generally a lot of room on all four sides of the stone to inscribe the names of family members.
You might also find vaulted obelisks. These stones have points on all four sides at the top instead of coming to one point.
Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister
During my two-week vacation, something unexpected happened. While touring around the winding roads of St. Joseph’s Island, I found a Pet Cemetery.
I had researched the area before my trip and had marked off every cemetery on the island, with the hopes of visiting them all. I had not read anything about a pet cemetery, so I was very surprised when I noticed a large stone with the words “WM. Wright Memorial Pet Cemetery” engraved on it. I quickly pulled over to the side of the road and made a three-point turn. My mother, who was traveling with me, was just as surprised as I was when she saw the cemetery sign.
The William Wright Memorial Pet Cemetery sits on land that was once the site of a Presbyterian Church. The Church suffered a fire, and from my understanding, the cemetery behind this church was moved to a cemetery further down the road. The land was inherited by William’s great-grandson, David Wright, who started the Pet Cemetery and named it after his Great Grandfather, in 1985. Today, the cemetery is cared for by the St. Joseph Lions Club.1
This beautiful cemetery is surrounded by large maple trees. It has a little chapel and even its own little receiving vault, also known as a dead house. When the Lions Club took over the care of the cemetery, they converted a shed to accommodate two freezers for winter storage.1
This was my first time visiting a pet cemetery. There is a mix of flat grave markers, homemade crosses, and other types of homemade gravestones that looked to be laid out in sections. I was affected immediately by the love and care that was taken to memorialize these animals. They were not just animals, but furry family members and beloved pets.
Some of the markers only bared names, while others had etched portraits or had loving epitaphs inscribed on them. The epitaphs got to me the most —things like “My Buddy” and “Forever loved”. Seeing these kinds of things inscribed on a tombstone for a pet, some of which were only in this world for a short time, was incredibly heartbreaking. I don’t usually have this sort of response in cemeteries and was a little surprised at how hard it was for me to read each stone.
Although it was an emotional experience for me, I was thrilled to be able to visit a pet cemetery. I think that they are growing in popularity, but they are still a fairly rare thing. After a little research, I only found information for eleven of them in Ontario, including the one I visited. I did try to visit a pet cemetery a few years ago, in Sault Ste Marie. But, we were unable to find it, and I have since been able to find out very little more about it. I would love to be able to visit more in the future. They are incredibly beautiful places.
Have you been to a pet cemetery before? What was your experience like? I would love to read about your experiences in the comments!
Summers in Northern Ontario are very short, so you need to make the most of them. Before long we’ll be knee-deep in frozen snow. But let’s not think about that right now!
I just got back from a lovely two-week vacation. My fiancé and I were finally able to visit some family and friends we haven’t seen in 3 years, due to COVID-19. It felt almost like a normal vacation. We traveled a wee bit, and of course, I visited some cemeteries!
My vacation was split into three different trips. I went camping at Algonquin Provincial Park with my 80-year-old mother. She hadn’t been camping in about 40 years. We only stayed for one night, but we had all the camping experiences; cooking on a fire, making s’mores, sleeping in a tent, and spending some time at the lake. We also took the opportunity to try finding the grave of Tom Thomson, a famous Canadian painter, who died mysteriously on Canoe Lake. You’ll be able to read more about that adventure in an upcoming blog post.
My fiancé and I, also took some time to visit Southern Ontario and visit family and friends, that we haven’t seen since before the pandemic. We toured the city a little bit, had some great food, and spent some quality time together. We even got a chance to visit some cemeteries. My fiancé is not very interested in visiting cemeteries, but he is very supportive of my love for cemeteries. I think he may have enjoyed hunting for them as we drove back home. We stopped at a few interesting ones that were along our route.
I also took some time to visit St. Joseph Island, the historic fort, and the bird sanctuary. My mother came along with me for that little trip as well. We toured the island and explored. We did some hiking and visited the beautiful Adcock’s Woodland Gardens. We also visited a lot of cemeteries, including a pet cemetery. That was a first for me. You’ll be able to read all about that adventure in an upcoming blog post as well.
I made sure to plan some buffer days to just relax and recoup between heavy days of driving, where I could spend some time with my fur babies and get ready for the next adventure. I also scheduled some days just to do nothing—but those days filled up fast with spontaneous things. Overall, it was a great vacation! I managed to visit 16 cemeteries, reconnect with friends and family, and recharge my batteries.
It was a wonderful break from work and my normal routine, but now it’s time to get back to it! I am feeling refreshed and am looking forward to writing about my vacation adventures and editing the hundreds of photos I took. I am also really excited about an upcoming special project and am currently playing around with some new ideas for the blog. I was starting to feel like my creative juices were stalling a little bit, but having a break has helped me reset and look at things with fresh eyes.
I hope you can take some time for yourself this summer if you haven’t already. Even if it’s only a long weekend. It’s so important to take the time to refresh and revitalize. To take your mind off work and just enjoy your family, friends, and nature or whatever else that makes you happy!
I haven’t posted a road trip story in a little bit, so today I wanted to share my adventure of finding a cemetery via railroad tracks!
It was back in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Social bubbles were very much in place and almost everything was shut down. There was not a lot to do that summer. BUT visiting cemeteries is always a viable option! My fiancé and I, and our close friends whom we had been bubbling with (that’s an odd to say), decided to go on a little adventure to try and find two cemeteries in Spragge, Ontario.
The little town of Spragge found its beginnings in 1882 but was originally named Cook’s Mills. It was a self-sufficient town of about 350 residents all built around the sawmill. In 1895 the whole operation was sold, and the village was renamed Spragge, after the township. When the depression hit, the mill closed in 1932. That same year, there was a devastating fire that burned almost the entire village to the ground. This caused a lot of folks to leave town, although a few remained and tried to rebuild. The mill never did re-open, and now there only sit about a dozen homes within the small village limits of Spragge.1 Two cemeteries remain, the Spragge Catholic cemetery and the Spragge Protestant cemetery.
This adventure would take us a little over an hour and a half on the road to get to Spragge. Our little group made a day trip out of it. We stopped at a diner and safely had lunch outside on the patio. We asked some of the locals about the cemetery. The stories we heard were pretty interesting. We were told that the owners of the property where the cemetery sits, do not like visitors and consider them trespassers. They talked about how this causes some tension between the townsfolk who want to visit their relatives, but are barred from doing so. The community was trying to get free access to the cemeteries. We were also told that the property owner was known to brandish a shotgun! We were a little put-off by the stories, but we were determined to take a look for ourselves.
After our slightly uncomfortable lunch, we continued on our way with directions by Google Maps. We turned off the main road onto a side road and what looked like a parking area. My fiancé was completely put-off by the stories we were told, he was also not as enthusiastic about visiting the cemeteries as we were, so he waited in the car and played look-out.
The rest of us began tentatively walking down the dirt road. When it opened up and we could see it was a driveway leading directly to a house, we decided to turn around and try a different approach. We had crossed a set of train tracks, that ran parallel with the main highway. After consulting Google Maps, it looked like we might be able to access the cemetery at a clearing just off the train tracks. We decided to try that. We chose a hot day to walk along the train tracks, but it ended up only being a short walk. On our left, a little clearing opened up which lead into the cemetery.
We had found the Spragge Protestant cemetery! We took some time to wander the grounds and look at the beautiful stones. It was a smaller cemetery and looked to be well-maintained. Not at all what we had pictured in our minds. We had been under the impression that the cemetery was abandoned and in disrepair. Some of the stones were too worn to be read, but some others were still in great condition. Some of the common cemetery symbols we found were clasped hands, obelisks, and little lambs.
After we explored a little bit, we tried to find the Spragge Catholic cemetery. According to my friend’s research, it should have been very close to where we were. We branched out a little, exploring the oddly well-kept lawn that snaked in between clumps of trees. We were nervous about getting too close to the house or going in full view of it. After a little more wandering, with no luck, we decided to turn back and reunite with my fiancé, who was patiently waiting in the car.
We were very happy to have at least found one of the cemeteries, and we vowed to do a little more digging and return in the future to find the elusive cemetery. It was still a fun adventure, after all exploring is half the fun.
But that’s not the end of the story!
This past winter I was busy uploading photos to Find a Grave and uploaded some of my photos from Spragge. A woman reached out to me, looking for coordinates for the Spragge Catholic cemetery, as she has family there. I passed on all I knew, and let her know we were not able to find it. She had also heard about the access issues, but since she was a relative was hoping the property owner would be understanding. She later contacted me and gave me an update. She was able to locate both cemeteries and visit her family. It turns out the town of Spragge did not want the expense of maintaining the cemeteries, and a private owner requested to take it over and purchased the property. When he is not in town, he has entrusted maintenance and upkeep to another property owner in the immediate area—who also happens to have loved ones buried in the cemeteries.
I also had another person reach out about these cemeteries. They have turned out to be pretty popular locations. This time, the person who reached out was searching for the location of the Spragge Protestant cemetery. He had visited the Spragge Catholic cemetery but did not find the other. We exchanged information. I shared everything I knew about the one I had visited. In return, he shared the exact coordinates of the Spragge Catholic cemetery and the contact information of the property owners. If we had searched closer to the water’s edge when we were there, we would have found it. So close!
I’m still a little confused about the stories that the folks at the diner told us, about the owners brandishing shotguns. From what I heard from both people who reached out, the owners seem very kind and willing to allow visitors into the cemetery. Although one had also heard about the access issues. Were there issues at one time? A misunderstanding maybe? Or maybe it was just some locals trying to scare away visitors? That mystery still remains…
Armed with all this new information, I will have to make another trip out to Spragge to visit the elusive Catholic cemetery. I love how this little adventure turned out because it showcases how interesting cemeteries can be. Cemetery mysteries are very much a part of the fun, and the fact that the cemetery community is so willing to share information and come together to solve these little mysteries is heartwarming.
Have you ever visited the cemeteries in Spragge? Do you have a cemetery mystery you would like to share? I would love to read about it in the comments.
Last Sunday was my last session of Stories in the Stones with Dr. Elise Ciregna. I enjoyed this course so much and wanted to share my experience and thoughts with you. I met some interesting and like-minded people and learned some very interesting things about cemeteries and gravestones. The last four weeks have been filled with presentations, discussions, readings, and visiting cemeteries, so I thought writing about it would be a great way to cap off the experience.
Stories in the Stones is a four-part seminar with Dr. Elise Ciregna. Dr. Elise is a historian specializing in social, visual, and material culture. She has a master’s degree in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University.1 She has worked for historic cemeteries and is the former President of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Elise is a fountain of knowledge and shares it eagerly. I enjoyed getting to know her over these last four weeks. There were 14 people in my seminar, all connected by a love and interest in cemeteries, and all with varying backgrounds. It was great to meet other taphophiles.
The course is broken down into 4 sessions:
The Colonial and Early National Period: Stones and Crossbones
The Nineteenth Century The Rural Cemetery Movement and the Age of Marble
Cemeteries as Spaces for Specific Communities
The Twentieth Century to the Present + Genealogical Research.1
Everything was done over Zoom and Google Classroom. I have never used Google Classroom before but it didn’t take long to figure out its functionality. Dr. Elise posted all her slides there, as well as resources, suggested readings, and the optional homework. I didn’t get a chance to read all the suggested readings during the duration of the course, but I found the readings I did have a chance to read, helpful to follow along with the slides. I plan to finish the suggested readings, as well as follow up with the other resource links that were provided. I also enjoyed the homework assignments, although I didn’t share them with the class. We did have the opportunity to share, either before the class presentation or in Google Classroom. The optional homework was a great tool to further my understanding of the material.
As I mentioned before, I enjoyed this course immensely. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it, being a Canadian in an American-based course, but I found all the information interesting and useful. Elise expertly walked us through the history and evolution of gravestone symbols, the background of stone carvers, as well as the evolution and distinctions between different types of cemeteries. Not only is Dr. Elise a repository of information and experience with historic cemeteries, but she also loves to share that knowledge. If you have a question that she doesn’t know the answer to, she will take the time to try and find the answers.
I feel that I truly learned a lot from this course. After just the first session, I visited some cemeteries with some friends and found myself putting the teachings into action, by explaining symbols and tombstone attributes to my friends. They joked that now they didn’t need to take the course. My only complaints are that it was too short! I feel like they could have added a couple of extra sessions to delve into some of the subjects, like specific community cemeteries. I also would have liked to get a certificate of completion at the end. I personally think it would have been fun to have and frame for my wall.
So, if you have been thinking about signing up for this course, here is your sign! Taphophiles, historians, and genealogists alike will find something interesting in this course. Regardless if you have a little or a lot of knowledge of gravestone studies, I think you would learn something new and love this course.
Have you taken this course? Did you enjoy it? I would love to read about your experience in the comments.
I love books! I am a big reader and have a large book collection at home, but I love finding stone books among the tombstones while wandering a cemetery. I find them very interesting and love trying to interpret what they mean.
Books can be both decorative or a representation of something. You can sometimes find a book being used as a decorative device to display the name of the deceased along with the birth and death dates. An open book can sometimes represent the human heart, as in it’s emotions are open to the world. An open book may also symbolize a life that has been cut short, before getting to the last page. Another variation of this is an open book with a cloth draped across it. This also represents a life cut short, the veil of death having bookmarked the person’s last chapter before the book is finished being written. A closed book might represent a long life, lived to the last chapter.
Any book found in a cemetery may represent the bible. Sometimes you may even find the words “Holy Bible” engraved on the book.
In my experience, books are not as common as some other funerary symbols, like hands and lambs. I love to photograph them when I do find them. I wanted to share some of my favorites with you today.
Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister
A little while ago, I wrote a post about Find a Grave, and how I have been more active as a contributor. I have been going through my photos and doing some photo editing as I go. It’s been a great way to use my photography to help others, creating memorials that don’t exist yet, and contributing to existing memorials.
Find a Grave is a hub of burial information, that includes photos, burial information, biographies and so much more. It’s volunteer-run, as its members claim and fulfill photo requests to aid in genealogy research, transcribing gravestone photos, and creating memorials. It’s a great resource. When receiving a photo request, you will be given all the information available; cemetery name and location, deceased’s full name, and birth and death date if known. You may also be given the location of the grave, such as the lot or section. It’s up to you to claim this request and fulfill it. I would recommend only claiming requests that you know you can fulfill.
While looking through my photos I picked up on two very different styles of photography I have developed over the years; my personal style and my contributor style. They are both very different. One reflects what I see when visiting graveyards, and the other is the result of wanting to achieve the best photo for transcribing and reflecting what a person would see when visiting their loved one.
I thought it might be helpful to share some tips on how to get the best photos as a volunteer photographer for Find a Grave. If you are just getting started or looking for some new ideas, here are some tips to help you get great photos:
Once you have claimed your photo request, the fun can begin!
Always take a photo of the cemetery sign when you first enter. Not only can this photo be added to Find a Grave, but it will also make it much easier when looking back at your photos to determine which photos were taken in which cemetery. This is especially helpful when visiting multiple cemeteries in a day. I would also suggest taking photos of any other signs that may be at the entrance. Sometimes you can find plaques describing when the cemetery was established and its history. These are always interesting to find.
Visit the cemetery office, if there is one. Sometimes, they carry cemetery maps to some of the more notable graves, and also show the layout of the cemetery. This is most often the case in larger cemeteries.
Keep the grave information you are looking for handy, so you can refer to it easily when needed. Find a Grave now has an app that makes this super easy to do. The app is available for both Android and Apple OS. Before the app, I would take a screenshot on my phone and refer to that photo.
When you have found your stone:
For headstones flush to the ground, it does not hurt to brush away any debris like leaves or grass to make sure the stone is legible.
Take photos of the headstone face on, this makes reading the inscriptions easier.
Make sure to check the back of the headstone for any additional inscriptions. This is important for obelisk stones as they often have multiple family members inscribed on each side.
Take a wide-angle shot to show placement or unique features of the grave, such as footstones.
Take a close-up shot of ceramic portraits if they are present.
Are you excited to get out there and take some photos? Let me know if you found my tips helpful. Do you have some tips you would like to share? Let me know in the comments.