Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I don’t know if this is a national trend or just something popular in the small rural town I live in, but this past winter, as the darkness came on earlier each day and I was passing one of the local cemeteries, I noticed a blueish-white light shining amongst the stone markers. As the weeks went by, more and more small lights began to appear, some of them having shape! As the points of light grew in number, my curiosity finally got the better of me and I pulled the car over to get a closer look. Squinting into the darkness I saw what appeared to be solar LED lights sprinkled among the graves. Apparently, lighting the eternal resting places of family members had become the latest thing. Wow, night lights for the dead, amazing. Some of the lights were shaped like angels or crosses making the scene even eerier. So, one mystery solved only to be replaced with another…why?

I don’t mean to offend anyone who may have chosen to illuminate their relative’s small plot of earth in this way, but seriously, do the dead really need night lights? What could possibly be the logic in lighting graves? Have the dearly departed taken to reading in the evenings? Do you think that they are afraid of the dark? Or maybe the light is for the living; you find yourself visiting the eternal resting place of loved ones in the middle of the night and so need a light to mark your way. I have to admit, I find it a strange practice. But maybe that’s just me.

I do however, think it somewhat a shame that the necropolis (what a fantastic word!) is not visited more often. One doesn’t usually think of them as a very cheery place to take one’s family, but this has not always been the case. During the Victorian period cemeteries were not mere places to lie to rest one’s family and friends, but were also buzzing with life, at least on Sunday afternoons. At the time it was an accepted custom, after attending church, for many families to spend their afternoon going to the local cemetery, tending the graves of loved ones and having picnics on the family plot. Cemeteries acted as the local park, and in fact, until recently, most cemeteries were called “parks”.

Within driving distance of our town is a wonderful cemetery of local fame. Hollywood Cemetery in downtown Richmond Virginia. It is a lovely place full of interesting history, beautiful statuary, flowering trees and rolling hills that looks out over the James River. Hollywood Cemetery, opened in 1849, was given its name because of the many holly trees that dotted its landscape. It’s quite large and sprawling (as witnessed by the aerial view below) as well as peaceful and interesting. There are several somewhat eccentric monuments here in true Victorian fashion. One of these is a large black iron dog that guards the grave of a child. (See photo). Angels abound, and there are some really lovely examples. Two United States Presidents are buried here, James Monroe who’s ironwork monument you can see below right, and John Tyler, as well as the one and only Confederate States President, Jefferson Davis. It is also the final resting place of 25 Confederate generals including George Pickett and J.E.B. Stuart. In 1869 an interesting, 90 foot high granite pyramid was erected to commemorate the more than 18,000 men of the Confederate Army who are also buried in the cemetery, most of whom remain unidentified.

In addition to its beauty, Hollywood Cemetery also has its local legends, including the many ghosts that haunt its mausoleums and the legend of the Richmond Vampire. The story of the Vampire began soon after the collapse of a railroad tunnel at Church Hill, a district of Richmond, which buried several workers alive on October 2, 1925. The tale is told of a creature with jagged teeth and bloody skin hanging from its body that emerged from the cave-in and ran toward the James River. A group of men pursued it into Hollywood Cemetery where it disappeared into a mausoleum set into the hillside.

It turns out that this legend is based in truth, railroad fireman, Benjamin F. Mosby (1896-1925), was loading coal into the steam tank of Locomotive 231 when the collapse occurred and was horribly scalded when the engine boiler exploded and several of his teeth were broken, yet he made his way out of the tunnel and emerged in a state of shock with layers of his skin hanging from his body. He later died at the hospital, but the story took on a life of its own and is still being told many decades later. In 1926 the tunnel was filled with sand and sealed at both ends. A private effort to possibly excavate and retrieve the train engine is currently being explored.

Having worked in the field of archaeology, burial sites are included in excavations regularly. Sometimes that is the aim, as in a burial site or cemetery that is in the path of upcoming modern construction and must be moved, or when bodies are discovered as part of an archaeological exploration. The photo at the end of this post shows me at the site of an excavated grave within Bruton Parrish’s cemetery in Williamsburg. It was my job to record the measurements, damage and decorative nail head of the coffin, which was amazingly intact after hundreds of years, though its lid had collapsed.

At another site in Maryland, earth was being moved to lay the ground for a housing development when the machinery turned up what appeared to be human remains. After the police investigated and found that the remains were in fact quite old the archaeologists were called in and a family cemetery from the early 19th century was discovered, excavated and the bodies then re-interned elsewhere. But not before the archeological team had gleaned as much information as possible from the bones, clothing and coffin remains to record for future study.

It is for this very reason that I would choose to be buried rather than cremated. I envision my earthly remains being dug up hundreds of years into the future by a team of archaeologists and them trying to puzzle out my life based on what they had found. If I had my wish, my coffin would be stuffed full of my favorite things; photos of my children, their artwork and small gifts to me; my favorite toys and jewelry, my I Pod and books, many, many books. Some of my own artwork; my writing; video clips from everyday life. I can picture the excitement on the face of the archaeologist as she peers into my sarcophagus, takes out her dusting brush and sweeps away centuries of dirt to reveal an Ugly Doll Action Figure or my boney hand clutching the poem my daughter wrote to me when she was six years old. I imagine her dialogue -- “Ah, see?” she exclaims, “we can tell this person was a female by her pelvic bone and skull, but see here, a contradiction, there is no scarring on the dorsal surface of the pubic symphysis which would indicate that she had not born children, yet the material culture she has been buried with would indicate otherwise. Interesting. I suppose she could have adopted. And see here on the middle finger of her right hand the build up of the bone on the end of that finger, which tells us that she held a pen - a lot. And down here on her right ankle, see the missing pieces of bone just there? Tearing the ligaments will do that; pull parts of the bone right off and cause a calcium build up in the area. So it appears that sometime in mid-life she has injured that ankle…more than once. Sheesh, what a klutz! Oh wow, look at this, an ancient musical storage device clutched to her chest. Man, quite the eclectic taste in music. Fascinating. We should know more after we get Toby to take a look at that massive computer storage device. Did you see the size of that thing? It’s as big as my thumb, how on earth were they ever able to get anything done having to keep all of their electronic information on those troublesome pieces of posionous plastic? We sure are lucky to have all of our data stored at the ends of our fingertips.”

This is sort of how I imagine the scene playing out. Morbid? I think not, just an imaginary tableau of a vessel used at one time by a spirit passing through. Oh, and since I plan on having books with me, could someone please leave a light on?

©KKW 2009


Angela said...

Curious observation, but love the analysis of your own grave being found. I'm with you, I'll go for the cremation

Anonymous said...

Did you realize that April 4th is Qing Ming? A Chinese holiday to honor your ancestors by going to their gravesite and cleaning it off, lighting red candles, burning paper money and leaving food for them. At their gravesite. A little nite light may also be a nice way to honor the dead.

I just thought it interesting considering your post.