In July 1991, I was drawn to visit the grave of childhood friend, Kathy Frost, murdered by her husband in October 1987. If you ever watch the forensic shows on A&E that explore cold cases, you’ve probably seen her story. Kathy was a sweet, shy, retiring woman who met a monster through the lonely-heart classifieds. He took advantage of her, insured her life, then proceeded to drug and throw her off Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park, shattering her body on the rocks 80-feet below. Investigations showed Kathy wasn’t the first of the man’s wives to fall victim to the same scheme.
As a reporter for a local weekly newspaper it was my job to put emotions aside, investigate and report on the death of a hometown girl. Though Kathy was murdered in 1987, it took me until 1991 to visit her grave site. My reporting days were finally behind me and it was time I paid my respects.
At that time, it had been a number of years since I’d visited any cemetery. As a child, I was taken along on my Mother’s genealogical scavenger hunts; wandering among gravestones while she documented names and dates. Each Memorial Day, my brothers and I were loaded into the car to visit and plant geraniums or pansies on various family graves. Growing up, I remember cemeteries as reverent locations—peaceful, somber, and sedate. Grave offerings were limited to a pansy or two for distant relatives and a geranium for more immediate family. Such was my frugal Yankee experience of paying respects to the dead.
Arriving at the cemetery to visit Kathy in 1991, I drove through the oldest section of the yard. It was neat and trim and everything I’d come to expect in a proper Maine cemetery. Imagine my surprise when a riot of color and overt ornamentation greeted me as I rolled slowly into the newer section of the graveyard. I was instantly struck by the flamboyance of mortuary decor that not only looked like—but was—yard art! Plastic, molded animal-shaped planters. Wind chimes. Whirly-gigs. Was that a ‘bend-over lady?’ Good Lord in Heaven! What was going on?
I immediately pulled out my camera and started documenting what I saw. As a budding anthropologist, my curiosity spiraled. I had to learn what was meant by such abundant ornamentation. At the time, I was less curious in the gravestones than the temporary memorial displays assembled by family and loved ones of the departed.
Pumped full of book learning, having returned to college to complete my undergraduate career only two years earlier, my brain buzzed around symbols as I attempted to establish patterns of behavior that could be documented, analyzed, and labeled. ‘How,’ I asked myself, ‘do “we” as a society depict individual identity in public space?’ I was certain this was the question on which to focus.
In the 20 years since I started my research, I have never been able to tease out a succinct answer to my original question. How does one separate the issue of individual self-identity from the interpretation of identity in a cemetery setting? The bottom line remains steadfast in my mind; unless an individual prepares for his or her own burial, selecting the monument, epitaph and plantings in perpetuity, such matters reside in the hands of the family and friends—those left behind for whom mortuary customs are about memorializing a loved one and commemorating the meaning of that individual’s life in relation to his or her own.
Over these 20 years, I’ve heard much lament about the cold, anonymous feeling of many of contemporary, urban cemeteries. The drab sameness of block granite stones with a central surname are said to have been birthed from the spirit of mechanized uniformity that lead to Allied victory in World War II and the subsequent mushrooming of tract housing across the American suburban landscape. Ease of mowing maintenance now regulates the style and height of stones and the what, if any, flowers or plantings are allowed. And so, it is to rural cemeteries that I turn these days to find memorials born from deep feelings of tragedy, loss, mourning and memory, as gifts from the heart.
Pulling again from my personal history, the first homemade stone I share here is the very first gravestone I ever visited—that of my elder sister, Sawtelle Baby.
Monson slate marker hand engraved by Elmer C. Sawtelle, my father, for his first-born; a baby girl who died of asphyxia when the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck at birth. Devastated by the loss of her child, my mother opted to not name the baby and my father created the only gift he would ever be able to give his infant daughter, a simple hand-carved stone to mark her grave. Crocker Cemetery, St. Albans, ME [07/04/2001 photo]
23 x 1800
Eadg 34 [sic]
Primitively carved field stone marker at the grave of Josiah Hills in Bradford, ME. Field stone markers found in older, rural Maine cemeteries are typically uncarved and mark graves that were known only to family members who marked them. Today, the identities of souls so memorialized are lost to time. [Undated photo]
The Frost family plot in Dexter, ME, is a six person plot containing the burials of four individuals, grandparents Leslie and Madeline Frost and granddaughters Cindy Ann, who died in infancy, and Kathy Lynn, murdered by her husband in 1987. [07/27/1991 photo]
White crushed rock serves as a popular bedding material for burial plots across the country. Frequently, a plot may be surrounded with railroad ties and filled with crushed stone, reinforcing the boundaries of a family burial spot. [07/27/1991 photo]
Dad and Mom
The identity of Dad and Mom is unknown at the time this photo was taken. Though the couple may have belonged to a near-by family marker, the orientation of the mortuary display in relation to the granite marker made it appear that the sites were unrelated. The display contained two, handmade, wooden window boxes that displayed an arrangement of silk and plastic artificial flowers. The identity of the burials is marked only with ornaments spelling out “DAD” and “MOM” in plastic flowers. Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Dexter, ME [05/29/2001 photo]
Bronze temporary marker bolted to a cast concrete form. The marker is approximately the size of a five-gallon bucket and has a domed top. Lee Cemetery, Dover-Foxcroft, ME [08/24/2001 photo]
Grist stone marker
Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Dexter, ME
Bronze plaque with the family name marking bolted to an old grist stone. The stone marks the gravesite of Helen Small Wilkins, April 16, 1913 to June 22, 2006. According to her obituary, published in TheDailyME online, Helen was part of the fifth generation to operate the Grist Mill in Dexter. Her husband, Clair G. Wilkins, February 15, 1912 to December 23, 1977, operated the Dexter Grist Mill for many years prior to his death. The gristmill now serves as home to the Dexter Historical Society.
Dorian D. Pickering (nameplate inscription)
The name and dates are fabricated using slot-head screws. An accompanying punched-brass nameplate is mounted on a black stone, possibly slate. Mountain View Cemetery, Loomis, WA [05/06/2003 photo]
Detail: Dorian Pickering’s homemade marker with a metal plate attached to a rectangular greenstone marker.
Riverside Cemetery, Riverside, WA
Marker made from a wire-spoke rim with an aluminum temporary grave marker bolted then welded to the wheel. The entire piece appears to have been over-painted with silver Rust-Oleum®.
Bronze plaque bolted to a marker made from various stone, quartz and other mineral samples cast in concrete. Riverside Cemetery, Riverside, WA [05/06/2003 photo]
Undocumented, homemade concrete marker, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Dexter, ME. Form-cast concrete was painted white with silver paint used to highlight the surname and small pebbles used as decorative elements surrounding a china plate depicting praying hands. Primitive yellow rose buds are painted to the left and right of the central ornament. When the site of this marker was last visited in 2009, the memorial was no longer in place. [07/27/1991 photo]
Bronze plaque with names and dates bolted to a monument made of water-eroded stones embedded in concrete. West Ripley Cemetery, Ripley, ME [06/27/2001 photo]
May 27, 1972
Mar. 19, 1985
Apr. 30, 1971
Mar. 19, 1985
The Woodard children were tragically lost in an early morning trailer house fire March 19, 1985. Buried side-by-side, the graves are marked with a conjoined heart, laser-cut marker. In 1991, the heart theme was carried throughout the mortuary display with white stones forming the outline of a heart surrounding a Christian cross. Bright pink and blue silk flowers marked both sides of the display that included little boy and little girl angel figurines. [07/27/1991 photo]
My Beloved Wife
Charlotte K. LaCourse
1938 – 1971
Burial mound covered with a large, aluminum metal form. A pink granite headstone includes Christian symbolism and a porcelain portrait of the deceased. Cast into the concrete base securing the headstone is metal tubing that is bent to extend over the burial mound. A second curved piece of metal tubing is visible at the foot of the mound. The fixtures were not in use at the time of this photo but the placement suggests the fittings serve a display function for grave offerings.
A standard-issue, laser-engraved and black pigmeted granite foot maker is surrounded by an elaborate, homemade mortuary display. A large section of green indoor-outdoor carpeting covers a large grave plot, underlying a white picket fence. Eye-screws placed at a uniform level around the base of the fence exterior provides secure placement of white, pink and red artificial [silk] flowers. A variety of life-size plastic castings of small animals, such as rabbits and squirrels are carefully placed around the perimeter of the fence. A variety of cast, plastic birds including ducks, an owl and a pair of love-birds, are situated on perches that are secured through eye-screws along the interior of the fence. The day these photos were taken, an older gentleman was tending the gravesite, fluffing flowers and adding pieces to the display. [05/08/2003 photo]