Cemeteries Offer Great Lessons in History

As any serious genealogist will tell you, a visit to a cemetery can provide a wealth of family history information. But it can be much more than that. Each year as we approach All Souls Day (November 2), the season presents an opportunity to renew and maintain family connections, just by walking through a cemetery.

Southeastern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin.
Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin.

One of the most touching scenes I’ve encountered was at a small cemetery in Augsburg, Germany. Walking past after dark, I looked through the small gate to see dozens of flickering vigil candles. These were not solar lights but real candles. Someone cared enough to visit there each night and light the votives.

A 20-minute walk through any cemetery will provide you access to family stories. Parents who lived long, full lives. Others who died much too young. Babies, some just one day old. Some who were never born. John and Jane Does, victims of murder. And in many older cemeteries, some of the departed rest with no visible monuments. Their markers were damaged or swallowed up in soft ground or by encroaching woods.

This anchor-themed monument is at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Portage, Wisconsin.
This anchor-themed monument is at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Portage, Wisconsin.

Observe the different monuments. Some are massive obelisks, others plain, square markers. A few are made from unusual materials. Some display incredible artistry. In many German cemeteries you will see monuments with engraved hands pointing to Heaven. Angels, crosses and even anchors are common subject of monument carvings.

Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin, is itself a monument to neglect.
Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin, is itself a monument to neglect.

Some cemeteries are known more for their infamy, such as Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin. We chronicled that story earlier in “A Sad Resting Place for Little Ida.” It is sad to see a cemetery fall into neglect and disrepair. It’s especially angering when a cemetery is targeted by vandals. A few years back, thugs toppled more than 100 monuments at Calvary Cemetery and Old Holy Cross Cemetery in Racine, Wisconsin. My Knights of Columbus council spent several weekends righting the monuments and making extensive repairs. Most of the damage was fixed, but some especially old stones were beyond repair.

John Clark and John Murphy of the Knights of Columbus repair vandalized monuments in Racine, Wisconsin.
John Clark and John Murphy of the Knights of Columbus repair vandalized monuments in Racine, Wisconsin.

Military cemeteries and the graves of soldiers are especially touching. I recall walking row after row of World War I grave markers in Ypres, Belgium, where the famous poem In Flanders Fields was composed in 1915. All of those young lives cut short by “the war to end all wars.” Such sacrifice. World War I cemeteries dot the landscape in Belgium; some in the middle of farm fields.

Grave of an unknown soldier near Ypres, Belgium.
Grave of an unknown soldier near Ypres, Belgium.

While our loved ones are gone, they can teach us still. There are great resources available to help you find where your relatives are buried. My favorite online database is the Find A Grave web site. Take a camera along on your next trip to the cemetery and help your fellow genealogists document history.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

2 thoughts on “Cemeteries Offer Great Lessons in History”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s