Continuing with our Cemetery Tour from last week, we will look at some of the living history presentations that have been given, symbolisms of the stones and forgotten practices of funerals.
Christy Alexander played the role of Susie Huffaker at our first Cemetery Tour. She told her tale of how she drowned in the swollen Neosho River on the night of May 14th 1872. Susie’s funeral announcement is preserved in the archives at the Morris County Historical Society. It is a plain half page piece of paper with a black border that gives details for the service. This was very typical of 19th century announcements.
Another grim artifact in possession of the Morris County Historical Society is a wicker coffin. In the last half of the 19th century these wicker ‘body baskets’ were primarily used by funeral parlors to transport the body from the home to the parlor, but they were also used for burial. These decomposing coffins were very popular in the crowded graveyards of England, and supposed to allow the corpse to decompose quicker and more efficiently. One Englishman was purported to say, “Bury me, when I am dead, bury me in an earth-to-earth wicker coffin, so that I may get out again into God’s pure air just as soon as possible.” From the Dallas Weekly Herald of July 10th 1875: “Willow coffins are now the rage in England. They are more comfortable in hot weather, it is claimed.” Going ‘green’ is not a new idea at all. In fact, wicker and decomposable coffins are still made and used by those who are concerned about their carbon footprint.
Beside wicker coffins were the common plain wood coffins the wagon maker often turned out upon demand. One documented story we have is the drowning of the Poole children near Parkerville in November 1879. The wagon maker at Parkerville made two coffins and two children were placed in each. Also in use in the 1870s were coffins with a glass window so one could look upon the countenance of the departed. Early Morris County pioneer Percy Ebbutt mentions the funeral of a young girl near Manhattan who was buried in such a coffin.
Headstones tell us a story through the images carved on them. Some symbols are easy to interpret such as a broken tree trunk or column signifies a life was cut short. Others can be less evident. An urn, wreath or ivy vine symbolizes immortality or eternity. The willow and anything that is draped represent mourning. A dove or lily indicates the resurrection. Two hands clasped together are indicative of a farewell handshake as Earthly acquaintances are parted. A hand pointing upward seams to say ‘do not look for me here, but look to Heaven,’ while a hand pointing downward represents God reaching down for the soul. The Bible or books often stand for the Book of Life in which the departed’s name is written. A lamb is often found on the stone of a small child and symbolizes Jesus Christ the Lamb of God. A sea-shell signifies baptism or rebirth.
The variety of stones is endless. You can make a family outing by going to your local cemetery and seeing who can find these different symbols and who can find the most. Also see how many different fraternal organizations you can find, such as Grand Army of the Republic; Free Masons; Odd Fellows; Knights of Pythias; Modern Woodmen of America; Ancient Order of United Workmen, etc.
Besides marble, granite and other stone markers, there are white bronze markers. White bronze markers, which are actually sand cast zinc, were manufactured by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The company produced these markers from 1874 to 1914. They were about one third the cost of what a stone monument of similar size would be, and they held up better in the weather. I am aware of two white bronze markers in the County, perhaps my readers know where there are some more. There is one in Greenwood Cemetery and one at Kelso Cemetery. The one at Kelso has Western White Bronze Co. cast in it. The Western White Bronze Co. at Des Moines, Iowa was a subsidiary of the Monumental Bronze Company at Bridgeport. Western White Bronze operated from 1886 until 1908. Although it doesn’t make sense to me, information I have come across claims that Western White Bronze never cast these markers, they only assembled them.
A notable historic figure that was portrayed at the first tour was Jack McDowell, who was hung by persons unknown. D. J. Bremer dressed the part with army revolver and all, and made quite the impression on folks. McDowell is one of the numbers in Greenwood whose final resting place is unknown. Another obscure character who lies in an unmarked pauper’s grave is Indian Juan. The early years of Indian Juan are unknown, but he is said to have been half Apache half Mexican. Charles Parker adopted the orphaned boy in his Santa Fe freighting days. It may be possible that Indian Juan was a victim of a Navajo raid on Mexicans, but this we surely can never know.
The Alliance Herald-Guard of Friday, June 19th 1891 announced the death of Indian Juan. “Indian John, commonly known as ‘Juan’ died at the poor farm east of Council Grove Tuesday night. He was brought from New Mexico by C. G. Parker, of Parkerville, twenty-four years ago, and has lived around in different portions of the county ever since. He was a character well known in Council Grove, Kelso and Parkerville and was kindly regarded by everyone who knew him. He has been under the weather for the last six months and suffered terrible agony, but he has now departed to the ‘happy hunting grounds’ of his forefathers where trials and tribulations will no more molest him.”
No one attended the burial of Juan, save the grave diggers and a curious Republican ‘imp’ who followed the wagon to the cemetery to discover who had died.
It occurs to me here that we could easily continue with this subject, but I’m a feared I must stop at this.