Take a walk in the cemetery with me. Come on, it’s October, a time of seasonal transition in both hemispheres, and I’m itching to catch stories. Gravestones contain the tales of people who once lived where we do. History for those who can read between the rows of marble and lines etched in stone.
Many writers tingle at the mention of a local bookstore. Others revere libraries. Me, I’m a cemetery geek through and through. And what could be better than a local National Park offering a tour of the dead and buried? A tour led by a local historian and fellow graveyard geek.
Meet Ranger Lynette of the Keweenaw National Historic Park.
Full disclosure: Ranger L is my hero. She not only researches, she gathers stories and allows them to haunt her the way writers work with characters. I could sit late into the night and listen to her collected stories of the Keweenaw.
When the KNHP advertised fall tours of Lake View Cemetery on the fringes of Calumet, I felt a jolt of excitement. I knew October was going to be a busy slog into the long winter, so I decided to take a guided evening stroll among 35,000 buried stories. The cemetery is so large that our tour clocked over a mile of walking.
We began at the veterans section where one stately memorial honored soldiers of the Civil and Spanish Wars and a block of granite acknowledge the burials of other soldiers with missing markers. Ranger L pointed out the marker of Louis Schweigert. Behind his white marble veteran’s grave were the plots of most of his family. Except daughter Caroline, who remains buried at Schoolcraft Cemetery on the other side of Calumet. On June 17, 1873 the seven-year-old girl was found murdered, leading to several accusations and one questionable confession by a teen nephew who later claimed he did not do the foul deed. To this day, her murder remains a mystery. I find it sad and curious that she is interred alone elsewhere. I foresee a headstone hunt in the abandoned cemetery next spring, and archive diving over winter. Ranger L has been researching the murders of women in the Copper Country.
Justice whispers on the wind through the cemetery trees.
Lake View is divided into two cemeteries, one Catholic and one Protestant. Immigrants on both sides abound. The copper mines attracted families seeking work and a better life. That life didn’t always turn out. For the first time, I paid respects to the victims of the Italian Hall Disaster.
Copper mines took advantage of workers and families lost homes when mining accidents claimed the lives of husbands. The company owned everything — the land, the ore, the houses, the stores. Miners went on strike for fairer conditions in July 1913. By Christmas, children were suffering the impact of the strike and Big Annie gathered other women who had fought along side their men to host a Christmas party for the children at the Italian Hall. Mothers and children from various faiths and countries attended. When a thug yelled, “Fire!” a crush of women and children fled and perished in the stairwell. This disaster still hangs over the Copper Country.
Stories from cemeteries are not all horrific, though. We can learn much through the observation of icons. Hands, for example. It’s common for one spouse to hold hands with another on a grave marker. Have you ever noticed different cuffs? One is a wife, the other a husband. Today, we could have same cuffs on a grave which society would have denied. Some hands, like the one below, reveal secret handshakes. Today, we could engrave fist bumps.
Someone took great pains to decorate a marker with pebbles from Lake Superior (and ,yeas, I examined all the rocks eagerly). Ranger L referred to such markers as folk art. Today, cemetery associations forbid home-made gravestones, including hand-carved slabs of Jacobsville Sandstone.
Some cultures included porcelain photographs on gravestones. They are not common to the cemeteries I’ve studied out west, but Lake View has several.
Veterans are often buried in family plots beyond the military section. I keep an eye out for the bronzed or marble markers. I feel a sense of relief when I see a person lived beyond their combat era. Those who died in combat compel me to look up their units and battle records. Of course, I’m always keen to find military graves of women.
The occasional beer can shows up and I wonder if the resident chipmunks had a party while gathering acorns or if a friend left a cold one.
Cemetery humor is a must for breaking up the sadness of life and the spookiness of wandering among the dead. I laughed when I saw the last name of Geist so proudly proclaimed. Is this where they buried Polter? I hope not! Moving on I noticed the curious coverings on more modern graves. Ranger L explained that families often “winterize” graves, urns and solar lights. I also look for character names. Bessie Bloy is a great name, don’t you think?
Stories are the hallmark of any cemetery. Ranger L’s astute sleuthing uncovered not only the grave of a Titanic survivor, but that of one buried at sea. The story goes, Anges Edwards of Cornwall had a grown son working the mines of Kearsarge (near Calumet). Recently widowed with two sons at home, one a boy, the other a young man of 20, she sold her home and bought passage on the Titanic. She awoke when the ship struck the fateful iceberg. The stewards told her to remain in her berth but curiosity drove them to go up deck. She and her boy were placed in the third lifeboat. She begged for them to let her older son come with her. The boat was hardly full and when lowered, other men, giving into their instinct to live, climbed or leapt into the lowering boats. Her son, Joseph Nicholls, died that night. His marker rests beside hers.
As we neared the end of our tour, Ranger L pointed out a tombstone with a book that read, “Mother.” I took a writerly interest in the feature although it likely symbolizes that Mother’s book is complete.
The final whisper of the evening came from the living. An elderly man reached high into a tree to pluck seed pods. Curious, I asked him about it. He broke apart the pod to reveal the seeds of hophornbeam (ironwood). He told me that he plants tree seeds where the mines left behind barren poor rock. I found that an interesting act, to plant something one would never live to see. An act of faith. Appropriate ending for our tour. Thank you for joining me!
October 7, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes whispers. It can be beautiful or creepy and any genre. Where are the whispers, who are they from, and what do they say if they say anything at all. Go where the prompt leads!
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Whispers by Charli Mills
Jane swung, pumping her legs to gain height. The wooden swing her father hung grew in the red oak her great-grandfather planted as a teenager. Jane never knew Romeo Tonti, an immigrant, but when she reached high enough she heard him whisper through the rustle of leaves. Jane learned the family recipe for spaghetti – use fresh rosemary – and how to splice a crab apple into a honeycrisp tree – for pollination, nipotina. Her mother proclaimed to the other soccer moms that her daughter was a cooking and gardening prodigy. He father would smile and wink. He heard the whispers, too.