Lessons You Can Learn From a Tour In Your Local Cemetery

If you’re looking to explore your roots, or just want to soak up some regional history, look no further than your local cemetery. On most mornings, that is exactly where I go, because I am a funeral director. But I often head there on my off-time, too. Working as a funeral director has piqued my curiosity about the lives of those who rest beneath the monuments.

In fact, it was such interest that inspired me to author two books about notable American cemeteries: Green-Wood Cemetery and Gardens of Stone. I’m far from alone in my interest. Touring cemeteries has become a huge pastime as evidenced by the many hashtags, such as #tombstonetourism and #cemeterywandering, to be found on social media.

Whether small churchyard cemeteries or large, elaborate necropolises, cemeteries today are regarded as cultural repositories and outdoor museums. What’s more, they are visual reminders that every life has a story, and one of them may be the story of your ancestors.

Learning About Your Ancestry

“Discovering the cemeteries and graveyards of your ancestors is a great place to further your genealogical research, as well as a make a physical connection to ancestral family,” says Valerie Elkins, a family history expert and professional genealogist based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Besides the commonly found information of name, birth and death dates, grave headstones may include clues on where to find further information to aid your research,” she says.

That information may include the person’s hometown, even in another country. Emblems on tombstones can provide clues to past membership in fraternal organizations, a person’s religion, and their veteran status, Elkins explains.

“Neighboring headstones can link families together, so it is important to pay attention to those graves surrounding them. Shared death dates might tell you that they died from the same cause such as a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, or that they died to possible unnatural causes such as war or murder.”

Elkins recommends the Internet as a good starting point if you are unable to locate your ancestor’s grave. FamilySearch.org, a free website, provides access to millions of records that the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogical library, has available.

Ancestry.com, which has a large catalog of cemetery records, is also a good resource. It is a premium website, but local libraries often provide free access.

And if online research doesn’t work, Elkins says it pays to contact local and state genealogy societies, which may be the key to finding information about cemeteries, even unpublished small family graveyards, especially since cemeteries’ names may have changed over time.

“Once you locate your loved one’s headstone, take photos of the stone,” she says. “Some headstones have information on the back and sides of the stone, so be sure and record this as well. Take pictures of the neighboring headstones to research later.”

Touring for Pleasure

While many visit cemeteries to trace their family lineage, others go to view the splendid architecture and learn more about local history.

“The history of America is in cemeteries,” says Marge Raymond, a veteran senior tour guide for Brooklyn, New York’s renowned Green-Wood Cemetery.

Raymond, who knows just about every inch of the cemetery’s 478 acres, first discovered Green-Wood through her interest in bird-watching.

“I was captivated by the beauty of Green-Wood and wanted to know everything about it,” Raymond recalls. She began to go on tours offered by the cemetery, soon becoming a volunteer who welcomed visitors and manned the cemetery’s book cart.

Her dedication was rewarded when, in 2007, Raymond became an official Green-Wood Historic Fund tour guide. Early on, she created three unique routes for the trolley tour, and for over a decade has given hundreds of walking, and private, tours.

Raymond’s knack for storytelling has garnered her scores of glowing reviews on Tripadvisor, as well a reputation as one of New York’s most popular tour guides. She is also a professional vocalist, who has sung with such legends as Rock and Roll’s Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and was in the chorus for the late tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

Sometimes billed as “the singing tour guide,” Raymond has been known to break into song at a gravesite, to the delight of those on her tour. One of those gravesites is that of Leonard Bernstein on Battle Hill, which occupies the highest point in Brooklyn and is a favorite spot of Raymond’s.

“I would call it a trifecta. There’s the remarkable Civil War Monument erected in 1869 by the City of New York, the statue of Minerva, the sister statue to the Statue of Liberty, and the grave of our beloved maestro Leonard Bernstein.” And, she says, “you can’t beat the view of the New York City skyline from that vantage point.”

What to Know Before You Go

Whether you’re taking a guided tour, or mapping out your own self-guided walk, here are some helpful tips from Elkins and Raymond to get the most out of your tour.

Familiarize Yourself with the Cemetery and Its Notable Inhabitants

“People come into the cemetery and look around. They may recall a name or two, but sometimes tourists don’t know the significance of what they’re looking at. That’s where a guided tour comes in. A tour guide knows the grounds and the stories behind the monuments,” Raymond says.

Search Find A Grave and Billion Graves

“Findagrave.com and BillionGraves.com are websites that have indexed thousands of graves from cemeteries around the world and are easily searchable,” says Elkins. BillionGraves.com also allows you to record the GPS coordinates of a headstone, along with the headstone’s information, to make it easier for others to locate.

Ask Questions of the Tour Guide

Don’t be a passive spectator. If something catches your interest, or you have a question, make sure to ask your guide. They welcome your interest.

Venture Off the Beaten Path

“I’ll find something interesting written on a headstone, then I’ll go and look it up,” says Raymond, who, while traversing Green-Wood’s public lots came across the grave of an early 20th century cyclist whose stone monument noted that he “died from exhaustion” after winning a race.

Tailor the Tour to Your Special Interests

Whether those interests are legendary movie stars, natural disasters, world wars, inventors, organized crime figures, or sports figures, there’s likely a tour for that interest.

Size Up the Particulars of the Tour

It is practical to have some numbers. How long is the tour? What’s the terrain like? Is there a trolley or bus alternative to walking? Needless to say, wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

Know the Cost

Costs vary from cemetery to cemetery. Members of historic funds often quality for a discount.

If you’re planning to be in New York this spring, Raymond will be giving tours on April 17th at 1 pm & April 30th at 7 pm, and on May 8th & May 30th at 1:00 pm. Head over to https://www.green-wood.com/calendar/ for more details. And as one Tripadvisor reviewer recommends:

“Make sure to ask for Marge when you book, she’s like a walking history book!”

Originally published on April 15, 2021 on https://sixtyandme.com/local-cemetery-tours/

God Winks

As deaths from the pandemic have, mercifully, subsided, cemeteries have relaxed a number of their restrictions. One that has yet to do so was the cemetery I was at this morning. The gates are still locked, and to enter one must be a funeral director there to facilitate an interment. No visitors are allowed. As I waited behind the locked gate, trying to get the attention of the guard, a light-colored Prius pulled up behind me. The driver was wearing sunglasses, and I could not make out his face, but I recognized –or thought I did –the car as belonging to the Deacon who would be officiating at this morning’s funeral.  Earlier, the Deacon and I had had a brief conversation as we both drove on the parkway leading to the cemetery, and by his calculation he was “right behind me.” So, when the guard unlocked the gate for me, I told him that the car behind me was with me, and to kindly let him in as well. He did, and I pulled into the waiting area, as the Prius pulled up next to me. The driver opened his window, and I exclaimed in surprise, “You’re not my Deacon.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “No, but thank you for getting me in. It’s my mother’s birthday, and I want to visit her and lay flowers at her grave.”  He went on to tell me how upsetting it had been for families not being able to visit their loved ones, and how he could not understand why cemeteries, with so much acreage (and plenty of room to social distance), would feel the need to lock their gates to visitors. I agreed. When my Deacon did arrive, a minute or two later, I told him the happy car coincidence. “That was no coincidence, it was a God winks moment,” he said with a smile.

So glad that man could have that precious visit on such an important day.

Pinelawn Memorial Park: My Mother’s Death Without Dignity

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My mother died two years ago.  While we had been estranged for many years, it saddened me to hear that her health had deteriorated, and that she had become a shell of the formidable person she once was. I found out about her death through my beloved uncle, her brother, and it was after the fact.  By the time he was alerted, by her son (his nephew), she had been dead for several months. Believing her remains were en route from Florida to New York for a traditional funeral, he inquired innocently,  “What about the funeral arrangements?” It was then that he was shocked and horrified to learn that she had been cremated  I say “shocked and horrified” because my mother and her brother are Greek Orthodox. Cremation is not sanctioned by the Greek church, and frankly is a big no-no.  What’s more, my mother abhorred cremation.  Years earlier, she had been dismayed and shocked herself when one of her best friends was cremated.  “Not for me,” she said, soon purchasing graves at Pinelawn Memorial Park on Long Island, New York.

My uncle, 92 years of age at the time, was heartbroken at not getting the chance to say goodbye to his sister, and only remaining sibling. He said it left a hole in his heart. And things were about to get worse. I called the Florida direct disposer, a repugnant and disrespectful title for one who lays the dead to rest. Their website alone made my stomach turn. “Why pay funeral home prices for direct cremation services?” it asks. Those commercial words suggesting a cheap alternative to a real funeral were not consistent with the dignified (sometimes haughty) woman who hewed to tradition and ceremony, and could more than afford the traditional funeral she believed in. I called and spoke to the proprietor, telling her that I am a funeral director (she is not) in New York. I explained that in New York we get everyone on board before such an irreversible act can occur. She told me in strident tones that she had not needed my permission. I also called the Medical Examiner’s office in the county in which my mother had died. They told me she had been found in her bed with a pillow mostly covering her face, having been dead for days. Her son had obviously not bothered to check in with his 86- year- old dementia-addled mother.

My family and I had so many unsettling questions after learning that her son had plundered her considerable financial means for his own personal use, while turning to the cheapest mode of final disposition. It was also about that time that we found out he, the perennial ne’er-do-well son, was a convicted criminal who had done time in a federal prison. We  insisted he bury those cremains; it was the very least he could do.While he lied to us and evaded our requests for the burial of the cremains, we prevailed. But the worst was yet to come. I expressed my concerns to the cemetery about our doubts that my mother’s cremains were actually being buried, and not just some Florida sand going into the grave. I appealed to the cemetery administrator Brendan J. Hickey to let me examine the cremains in advance, as a professional courtesy, so that I could then reassure my uncle. He turned a  deaf ear to my pleas.The morning we buried my mother’s cremains in her grave at Pinelawn Memorial Park, there was nothing “park-like” about the chaotic scene. My uncle, cousins and I watched in horror as backhoes circled (the gravediggers kept apologizing to me, explaining that they were only following Hickey’s orders) and cruel words were hurled at us by my mother’s son and his wife. Throughout the thousands of interments I have been a part of I have never witnessed such a scene.The most shocking moment was when two Suffolk County police officers, summoned by Hickey, approached me. While I conducted myself with the utmost dignity and restraint, as I do at all funeral services, the police were told that Hickey “expected trouble.”

In my long career as a funeral director, I have striven to provide the utmost dignity for the deceased. Yet, for my mother there was none. And that I could not do that for her has caused a ceaseless pain. While I made a complaint to the cemetery board (not only for myself, but to ensure Hickey would never treat another family in such a crass and cruel manner), they never followed up with me. I was approached by reporter friends to tell my story as a cautionary tale, but out of respect to my uncle I declined.  I could not, in good conscience make worse the circus that had been my mother’s funeral. Each and every time I must go to Pinelawn Memorial Park the horror of that day comes back to me.Certainly it is the funeral director in me, and how I hold dear that last wishes are sacrosanct, that made me want to advocate for my mother. It is the last good deed we can do for others. While my mother failed my all the years of my life, I was determined not to fail her in death. Sadly, because of Brendan Hickey, I feel that I did just that.

My Cemetery Travels

 

I took tour guide extraordinaire Marge Raymond’s trolley tour at Green-Wood Cemetery today. After the tour, Ruth Edebohls, another of Green-Wood’s tour guides, joined us, and we went exploring.  Despite having written a book about the place, Marge and Ruth showed me several sites I had never seen before. Green-Wood never ceases to amaze me.  There is always something new to see. Sometimes it’s an interesting element of a grand monument that escaped notice, or a small, almost hidden stone on which is inscribed something that moves the soul.

I was able to get some interesting new photos to share from this fun afternoon. And, as always, a visit to Green-Wood is a learning experience, especially in the company of two such amazing guides Thanks Marge and Ruth!

 

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The grave site of Leonard Bernstein is a perennial favorite of visitors.