NUDGE: Cemetery Visits

Gargoyles on the steeple of the Busch mausoleum.

I’m a regular connoisseur of cemeteries, and I’m happy to visit any kind, anywhere, large or small. I especially love really old graveyards far out in the country. The sooty, flat stones with their antiquated typefaces and engraved willows, urns, sheep, and other classic motifs are especially attractive to me.

I also love the grand old cemeteries established as part of the rural cemetery movement in the 19th century. In Cincinnati we have Spring Grove Cemetery; you can read my sister Diamondqueen’s account of our recent visit here. Although there are plenty of the simple tombstones I describe above, Spring Grove also has elaborate mausoleums and monuments, not to mention exquisite landscaping.

On our recent visit to St. Louis, my brother offered to guide my mother and me through Bellefontaine Cemetery, another of the impressive rural cemetery establishments. Again, we ventured along rolling roads filled with lush autumn foliage, green lawns, and an impressive display of mausoleums. Since I’m not as versed in St. Louis history as I am in Cincinnati’s, I didn’t recognize some of the important names (although I studied the Bellefontaine website when I got home, which details the stories of the more prominent people and monuments). However, I certainly recognized such names as Anheuser, Busch, and Captain William Clark. Poet Sara Teasdale is also buried at Bellefontaine.

Mom at the monument for Captain William Clark.

It was what I consider a classic cemetery visit: A mixture of pastoral beauty, history, contemplations of mortality, and a touch of the macabre. Sometimes the effect was due to a type of cemetery art or monument; sometimes due to stories associated with the cemetery or someone buried there. One elaborate gothic monument showed a white figure abed with another figure beside it. When we got closer, we saw that the elements had deteriorated the scuptures over time, so both the sheet-draped woman on her deathbed and the mourner looked as if they were made of sugar that had melted in the rain. Thanks to the Bellefontaine site, I learned the grave was that of Kate Brewington Bennett, a St. Louis belle and wife of one of the founders of Bellefontaine. She was known for the extreme paleness of her beauty. It turns out Kate maintained her white complexion with small doses of arsenic, which built up in her system over time and killed her at the age of 37. (Click on her name for the story and photos of her monument.)

NUDGE: If you haven’t visited a cemetery purely for recreation, recently or ever, do so this Halloween season. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate grounds such as one of the rural cemeteries (most of which are no longer rural; both Spring Grove and Bellefontaine are now located in troubled sections of Cincinnati and St. Louis respectively). A small nearby cemetery can yield all kinds of treasures if you take time to read the stones and observe the artwork.

Let the visit inspire what you want to write: a poem about the visit, a blog post about the cemetery, a journal entry about any contemplative thoughts the visit inspired. Gather impressions and details for future writing projects. Maybe you’ll need a cemetery for a funeral, or a more unworldly event, in your fiction. Or make a list of interesting names. The older the stones, the more intriguing the names can be.

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