Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cemeteries and Memorials: Windows to the past and insights into our cultures

Perhaps some will find this an odd post, but we both find cemeteries to be quite fascinating, and over the years we seem to have accumulated a considerable number of photographs of various foreign- and US-based graveyards  which we thought we might share.  No, we have no fascination with the dead, nor are we students of cemeteries, and we certainly cannot compete with the multiple blogs out there completely devoted to discussing graveyards.  Indeed, it would seem there may even be some sort of "ology" on the study of places where the dead are buried.  For us, it has  more to do with our interest in history.  An old graveyard can provide a quick introduction to a community's history and culture; natural disasters, war, epidemics, folklore, language, ethnicity, community values, and religion to name a few things that are brought to mind while one wanders amongst the headstones.   

The Ossuary at the Verdun Battlefield, France.  It contains the unidentified remains of some 130,000 French and German soldiers killed around Verdun.  Through the tiny windows along the bottom of the structure, one can view the endless piles of bones and begin to understand the magnitude of the battle. 
In the grounds to the front of the Ossuary are some 15,000 graves of identified French soldiers.  Nearly 55,000 identified German soldiers are buried in 29 cemeteries in the vicinity of Verdun.
The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial at Romagne, France.  It is the largest American military cemetery in Europe and contains the remains of more than 14,200 Americans, most of them killed during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.  A few have their date of death listed as 1919 and some are civilians; they probably died during the great influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe (and the globe) at the end of the war.  
In every American military cemetery, there are a more than a few unknowns.
We are not sure how an infant came to be buried here, but she likely died of the great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919, which killed atleast 20 million worldwide; some estimates run as high as 100 million.  Interestingly, the outbreak probably started in Kansas and was spread by US soldiers at a nearby army base who carried the virus to Europe.
A family burial tomb on Okinawa.  During the American invasion of the island in 1945, the Japanese military often used these as part of their defenses.
The "Cornerstone of Peace" on Okinawa.  These walls contain the names of more than 240,000 individuals who lost their lives during the 82-day campaign for the island.  The vast majority are Japanese or Okinawan, but some 14,000 American names are also included. 
Confederate cemetery at Franklin, Tennessee.  Almost 1,500 Confederates who died during about 3 hours of fighting at Franklin in November of 1864 are buried here.
Monuments in the Franklin cemetery honoring the dead of each Confederate state.
More questions than answers.  Driving down a dirt road while looking for a place to picnic, we found this grave in a tiny cemetery stuck way off the beaten path in the "Land Between the Rivers" (Cumberland and Tennessee rivers), Kentucky. Who killed him? Why? Were they caught and punished?
Yes, the Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House on the Prairie" fame.  Her grave is in Mansfield, Missouri.  H is a big fan of her books and life. 
American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France.  This one sits on the bluffs overlooking the invasion beach code-named "Omaha," where US forces suffered heavy casualties.   It contains the remains of 9,387 Americans, most of whom were killed during the invasion and ensuing military operations throughout Normandy. 
More from Normandy.
To rest eternally overlooking the sea... a Chinese cemetery on Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Island.
Prohibited forms of traditional ancestor worship at the cemetery on Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong.
A missionary rests far from home in the cemetery on Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong. She was only in her 40s. I wonder how she died.
Korean Cemetery.
Punchbowl National Military Cemetery, Hawaii.
Small family cemetery in rural North Carolina near where T grew up.  Unfortunately, it has been seriously neglected over the years, which often happens when the land containing these small family plots changes ownership.  Compare the condition of this small plot with that of the US military cemeteries.
Individual headstone from the same graveyard.  This is one of several belonging to a single family which lost two daughters and the mother in 1879.  Local lore has it that the children died of diphtheria, a common childhood illness striking thousands of victims before immunization programs came into effect.  Perhaps the mother died of a broken heart.
Wooden headstone in the same graveyard.   I would venture to guess the cedar tree behind it must be well over a 100 years old.
Just down the road from that cemetery is this small plot which also has fallen into neglect over the years.  Vandals have stolen some of the headstones from the graveyard, which dates from the 1870s.
The graveyard also holds another case where the mother and this time three of her children all died within about a year in 1885-1886.  All the children were less than 10 and this one was an infant.  Again, locals recall the children died of a diphtheria epidemic.  While I have seen no records for this particular area of North Carolina, the Journal of the American Medical Association (volume 23) says there were 131 recorded cases of diphtheria in New York City from 1885-86, with 68 deaths.  Other sources report regular and deadly outbreaks of diphtheria in the 1870s and 1880s in states as far apart as Nebraska, New Mexico, and Michigan.
Same graveyard, but this guy lived to a ripe old age.
And then there is this cemetery near the tiny town of Murray, Idaho, which provides a fascinating peek into the history of the American West.  Murray sits in the Coeur d'Alene National Forest about half way between Wallace, ID and Thompson Falls, Montana.  In other words, the middle of nowhere.  In its heyday back in the late 1800s, however, Murray was a booming little town thriving on gold and silver mining.  Many of the town's founding members now rest in the Murray Cemetery, established around 1887 and still in use.  They lay side-by-side with others who plied their trade in Murray during the boom times, including hucksters, ex-soldiers, miners, prospectors, cowboys, railroad men, and prostitutes, like Ms. McCorkendale. 
Local volunteers maintain the cemetery and have replaced some of the original headstones so the curious like us can read them.
This may be the most well known gravesite in the cemetery.  Maggie Hall was born in Dublin, Ireland and arrived in New York City in 1873.  She apparently had trouble finding work there, so Ms Hall  headed out west to seek her fortune in the mining camps and became a high-class prostitute under the name Molly Burdan.  She also became something of a local hero.  According to local lore, while on her way over Thompson Pass in the winter of 1884, she saved the life of a stranded woman and child, and during a smallpox epidemic in 1886, she organized  efforts to care for the sick. She died from complications of tuberculosis at the age of 34.
Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, Montana.  Nearly 5,000 soldiers and their dependents are buried here, representing every US conflict from the Indian War era to the Vietnam War, and they too provide some snippets about frontier life in the American West during the 19th century. Some of the more interesting individuals interred include Lieutenant William Fetterman, who bragged he could ride through the whole Sioux nation with 80 men, but when he had his opportunity, he and his 80-man command were wiped out (see Indian Wars entry, part 2);  Mrs. Julia Roach, the first woman shot by her husband in Montana Territory; Major Marcus Reno, Custer's second-in-command at the Little Big Horn, who died a friendless and broken man in 1889; three unknown soldiers from the 7th Cavalry who died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn; plus, Corporal John Noonan, who was married to a Mrs. Nash, a frontier post laundress.  In the summer of 1878 while Noonan was away from post, his wife died.  The ladies preparing Mrs. Nash's body for burial discovered she was a man.  Word soon spread over the post and poor Noonan suffered so much ridicule that he shot himself.
The cemetery also includes several hundred Indians, including White Man Runs Him, a 7th Cavalry scout who served under Marcus Reno at the Little Big Horn; he died in 1929.  The US Army made extensive use of Indian scouts during the frontier wars of the 19th century.
This nondescript cemetery in Libby, MT, at the base of the Cabinet Mountains, is included because it too tells a story.  The ore Vermiculite has been mined in the area since 1919.  Vermiculite was used in insulation produced by the Libby-based Zonolite company and was widely used in the United States in the 1950s.  Unfortunately, the vermiculite mined in the Libby area was tainted with asbestos.  In 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a series of articles documenting extensive deaths and illness from the asbestos contaminated vermiculite at the mine.  Federal investigators subsequently found that air samples from the area had high levels of asbestos, which is suspected to have caused asbestos related ailments among former Zonolite employees and their family members.  By some estimates, more than 274 area deaths are thought to have been caused by asbestos-related diseases, and a considerable number of those still living in Libby—17 percent in one study—have various forms of diseases (primarily cancer) caused by asbestos.  Libby is now a superfund site where the US Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning up asbestos-tainted soil and other materials since 2000.  The EPA and Department of Health and Human Services in 2008 launched an $8 million investigation into the effects of asbestos exposure on the people of Libby.  Several film documentaries and books have covered the issue, including Dust to Dust, An Air That Kills, Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation,  Wasting Libby: The True Story of How the WR Grace Corporation Left a Montana Town to Die (and Got Away with It), and Fatal Deception.

This memorial is in the town cemetery of St. Maries, ID.  It marks the gravesites of 78 firefighters killed during "The Big Burn" fire of 1910, which burned about 3 million acres of forest in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana (an area about the size of Connecticut) and destroyed several small towns.  It was the largest fire in US history, and incredibly, the majority of it took place over a 2-day period (20-21 August) when the fire "blew up" and overwhelmed thousands of firefighters.
A close up of the memorial.  Timothy Egan's The Big Burn:  Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America gives a fascinating account of the fire and its impact on the US Forest Service.  It won the National Book Award in 2009.   Stephen Pyne's Year of the Fires: The Stories of the Great Fires of 1910 is also worth a look.
Pyne's book is more of an academic study of the story of the fires, provides more detail, and is perhaps the better researched of the two, but Egan's account is more personable and lively.  For example, he provides stories of several of the individual firefighters, their actions, and their fates, including Dominick (Dominico) Bruno, an Italian immigrant who had arrived in America in 1907 and headed west in search of work.   He and his partner, another recent Italian immigrant, first worked in the copper mines of Arizona, then headed to the Pacific Northwest to fight fire because they heard the pay was good and anything would beat working in the mines.  They ended up on a firefighting crew near Wallace, ID and fought fires for 17 straight days.  During the Big Blow Up on the 20th and 21st of August, they tried to escape the conflagration by hiding in a root cellar.  They and five others were killed when the fire swept over their supposed refuge.


  1. Hey, I just stumbled upon this website while looking up information on the Battle of Verdun. I've spent more than an hour just musing through your various posts. I just wanted to say "Thanks" for the read. :)

  2. You are very welcome. Glad you found the post interesting!