Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 24, 2021
"So I can feel the rain"
The cable with colored plastic triangles was stretched a few feet above the roadway - a clear "Do-not-enter" message.
"Are you going to raise it or am I?" husband Art asked.
I was sure it was only intended to discourage visitors at the flea market to the east from using the cemetery for parking. Still, I'm not big on breaking and entering. But it was clear Art was going to do it if I didn't, so I reluctantly got out and lifted the line high enough for our car to pass underneath.
Our visit to the small cemetery in St. Germain, Wisconsin, wasn't the first time Iíve looked over my shoulder while perusing tombstones. In 1991, our stop at a graveyard in the former East Germany prompted several locals to simultaneously conclude their nearby sidewalks needed sweeping. That same fall, searching for the graves of my Hillyer relatives in the Cornelison Cemetery east of Reserve, Kansas, resulted in the sudden appearance of a local to see what we were up to. We had a good laugh when it was discovered he was a flesh-and-blood relative!
It might be reasonably assumed our interest in family history is the motivation for these graveyard visits, but that is only partly true. On our three most recent excursions, including this one, we had no expectations anyone we knew was buried in them.
"Look! There's a cemetery. Should we stop?" is something I hear frequently when we are traveling. If we are on a journey and I am eager to get to our destination, I'll decline the offer. But frequently I'll accept. For me, each marker is a small memorial to the story of someone's life. The epitaph, "Remember, friend, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I," is fitting. Some might see our interest as macabre, but for me it is an invitation to think about the people whose stories ended there and to slow down for a moment and reassess what is really important.
Except for the paved access road, the cemetery was a sea of green grass with groupings of gravestones surrounded by trees. Every so often there was a gap just wide enough for a hearse to pass through. Recent rains made me concerned about turning into one of them, but I knew Art would not be deterred.
"Look! What's going on with that one?" Art said, pointing to a stone near the woods on the north edge.
I grabbed my camera and headed out.
I am not much impressed with graveyards where the markers are flat plates set in the ground. I feel a person's final resting place shouldn't be restricted just so a grass mower may easily pass over.
I enjoy stones that are unusually colored, have odd shapes - slender obelisks are a favorite - and anything else that makes them stand out. I like details that tell something about the person - a wedding ring with a date or a "parents of ....." on a joint stone for husband and wife. I particularly enjoy photos of the person or graphics suggesting activities he or she enjoyed ... fishing, golfing, hunting, farming, military service, teaching ... or a few lines of verse. I'm OK with large stones, but a burial vault seems a bit ostentatious.
Our lives are shaped by what is popular, so those left behind are similarly influenced by what is then in vogue. The obelisk I like so much arose from public fascination with Egyptian culture in the mid-19th century. At one time, it was common for graves to be laid out on an east-west line with the engraved side of the headstone facing the rising sun. But that waned in the 19th century when "wandering-path" cemeteries became popular and headstones were placed facing the nearest road.
European burial plots are not owned, but are only rented, usually for a decade or so. When our French-friend Gerard mentioned his aunt had reworked the family graves, Art asked what happened to those who were buried there before. He shrugged and pointed to the scrap pile near the cemetery wall. That would never fly in America.
While some markers are a celebration of the life of the deceased, others memorialize the loss experienced by loved ones. When sculptor William Story lost his wife Emelyn, he created the "Angel of Grief" or "Weeping Angel" monument for her grave in Rome, Italy. The 1894 piece is considered to be one of the most copied tombstones.
Kansas' most widely-known burial monument was created by a farmer. John Davis built the memorial in Hiawatha's Mt. Hope cemetery, prompted by his wife Sarah's death in 1930. But unlike Story, the motivation for its creation is not clear. The eleven full-size statues of the couple at various stages of life used all of Davisí wealth. While that may have been a tribute to his love for Sarah, others have suggested another reason. Her family had not approved of the wedding. Having no children, but having done well, some felt it was Davis' way of ensuring her family did not benefit from their estate.
Davis was criticized by some. With the Depression intensifying, they suggested he could have used the money for better purposes, such as building a hospital. He was reported to have said it was his money and he'd do with it as he saw fit, which included helping locals who were in difficult circumstances.
Oddly, the memorial, which is listed in National Register of Historic Places, now draws thousands of tourists each year to the small northeast-Kansas town - something no hospital would have done.
The stone that had caught Art's eye in the St. Germain cemetery was no Davis memorial, but made the stop rewarding. It had a woodland scene of birch trees and an inscription that managed to be both poignant, yet uplifting: "Grave digger, when you dig my grave, please make it shallow, so I can feel the rain."
Left: Gloria visits the Brown obelisk in the Rhinelander cemetery; top-center: Davis memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas; top-right: William Story's "Angel of Grief"; bottom-left-center: Ralph Hillyer Jr. and Gloria with Gloria's daughter Mariya in the Cornelison Cemetery in Reserve, Kansas in 1991. Mariya is sitting on Ralph's great-grandfather John Hillyer's "Tree of Life" tombstone. Four remaining images clockwise from Hobbs stone: Hobbs marker with wealth of family information; Roth stone illustrates Mary Ann's organ playing, while hubby Richard enjoyed golf. The bird represented Mary Ann's enjoyment derived from feeding them; St. Germain tombstone with the message to the gravedigger; MaKayla Jo Lego died as the result of injuries when struck by a vehicle while riding her bike. The memorial shows her love of horses and swimming. (Davis and Angel of Grief images from Wikipedia.)