What the Cemetery Superintendent Sees: 1896

Forest Hills Cemetery gateway, Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1905

QUEER THINGS IN SILENT CITIES

What the Superintendent Sees.

Pathetic, humorous, and strange incidents are continually occurring in cemeteries. The public never hears of them because the cemetery superintendent isn’t often a talker. He doesn’t tell things unless he is asked. The stories of some happenings he declines to relate, regarding them as professional secrets. Above all, he of course never mentions names. The burying ground is one of the greatest places on earth to study character. The superintendent knows it and he is a most proficient student. His practiced eye detects the alleged mourner who simulates his grief, and in a moment he spots the financial skinner who is either cheese-paring expenses or making a spread to impress funeral participants to such a great extent that the display may be a sort of financial investment. In most cases friends and relatives who are not sincere mourners make strong and clever attempts at deceiving observers. Some, however, do not care, and family feuds are ofttimes carried to the side of the grave.

There was recently an instance of a woman laughing and chatting like a parrot a few minutes after the burial of a child. Then there are cases in which the wounds of sorrow made by the deaths of friends or relatives are so deep that the bereaved ones never recover. Some of this class visit and decorate the graves of their dead every day in the year, rain or shine. There are others, however, wounded just as deeply, who cannot bear the cemetery, but sit at home and suffer in silence.

The Curious and Superstitious.

The bane of a graveyard is the curiosity-seekers and the superstitious. People of the former class have a morbid love for funerals that is ghoulish. They gloat over the grief of the mourners, and feast their eyes on the face of the corpse if they get an opportunity. The abnormal appetite of these people seems never satiated. Their faces are so familiar to cemetery-keepers that they are missed if they neglect to attend a single funeral. Superstitious people are still plentiful. They wouldn’t enter a burying ground at night for a million dollars, and many of them wouldn’t go into a vault even in the daytime, not even if they were accompanied by an electric arc light and a cannon. A few days ago a remarkable superstition came to light at Graceland. One of the managers was walking in a driveway when he was approached by an old woman, tottering and bent with age. In one hand she carried a crumple strip of paper. Approaching, she said: “I’m looking for an open grave, sir. Can you tell me where to find one?”

“Yes, there is one right straight north of here—the seventh lot,” was the reply. “But why do you want to find an open grave?”

‘Well, you know, one of my granchillern’s got the scarlet fev’r, an’ I’ve writ the name of the disease on this here piece of paper. If I kin just drop the paper in an open grave, where it’ll git buried, the disease’ll leave the chile an’ go down in the grave.”

When asked for a look at the paper, she unfolded it and held it out. On the scrap was scrawled in a lead pencil, “skarlit fevr.” When the old woman was handed back her slip she hurried to the grave. The man watched her. When she reached the hole she stopped for a moment, and seemed to be muttering some incantation over the opening. Then she stretched her arm out straight over the middle of the grave, with the back of her hand down. In a moment her fingers, which had been tightly closed, opened. The light breeze lifted the “skarlit fevr” charm from her palm. It fluttered in the air an instant, and fell into the grave. The poor old creature was satisfied. With a contented, feeble smile, she turned and hurried away as fast as possible.

Wax Flowers and Coffin Plates.

Very frequently the family of the deceased removes the name plate from the coffin and has the flowers which were used preserved by dipping them in wax. The flowers are made in the form of a wreath. The silver plate is placed in the middle and the whole is placed in a glass case to be hung In the parlor. Then, after some one comes along and makes the remark that it is “mighty bad luck to have such a thing in the house,” the relatives take down the case and carry the plate to the cemetery and ask the superintendent to have the body taken up that they may put the plate back on the coffin. This has happened so often at every cemetery that the employes do longer smile when the superstitious man with the plate wants a coffin exhumed.

At Oakwoods cemetery there is a remarkable and apparently inexplicable mystery, for many years the authorities there have been finding candles just inside the great high iron fence which surrounds the grounds. In every instance the candle has been lighted and extinguished at once before any of the tallow has melted. Sometimes three candles are found bound together by a strip of a linen handkerchief. They are always found so close to the fence that whoever left them evidently reached between the iron bars and dropped them within. Scores of the candles have been found, and Superintendent Drew always has a fresh drawer full in his office. Many guesses have been hazarded as to the cause of the strange practice. The theory which seems most plausible is that it is a hoodoo charm performed by negroes the night of the burial of one of their kin.

Is the Grave Secure?

Quite frequently people ask cemetery superintendents to open the graves so that they may see if the corpse has not been stolen or disturbed. This is especially the case when graves are very much sunken. It is very seldom that the authorities will listen to the request. The suspicions are almost invariably groundless and explanations are made to the friends showing them the uselessness of disinterment. Body-snatching is almost unknown in in these days. The only cases that may occur are when the deceased has been taken away by some unusual disease which scientist would like to investigate. For all ordinary scientific study the hospitals and poor-house furnish an abundance of bodies. Sometimes before the coffin is lowered into the grave some mourner is already figuring on having the corpse exhumed before very long to see if it has been disturbed. One day at Oakwoods a mourner, who was unwilling to trust the records, walked the fence and scratched a cross on the railing opposite the grave which was in the single grave section. In a few weeks he came back and wanted the grave opened. He was so persistent that Superintendent Drew consented. The man wanted the grave opened which was exactly opposite the notch. The records and chart showed the grave of the gentleman’s relative was next to the one which he wished opened. He kicked up a great row, but the superintendent stood by his records and opened the grave indicated on the chart. It was the right one. The mourner had not been careful in making his mark, and had placed it a little to one side and directly in front of another grave, only a foot away. The coffin was taken up. The dead had not been disturbed and the man was satisfied.

Flower Thieves.

The only kind of thieves and robbers that bother the burying ground is the flower thief. She, for this brand of thief is almost invariably of the feminine gender, comes with the blossoms in the springtime and she haunts graveyards all summer long unless she is detected. Decoration day before last, at Mount Greenwood Cemetery, two enterprising flower sellers and stealers had a narrow escape from being mobbed. A man drew up a wagon filled with potted plants near the station. Great crowds were getting off the train and he sold flowers right and left. Although he was selling them by the dozen on every hand, for some strange reason his supply seemed no smaller at the end of an hour than when he began. Presently, when the salesman’s wife was caught stealing flowers in the cemetery, his never-decreasing supply of floral goods was no longer a mystery. As fast as the purchased flowers were placed on graves the wife stole them and carried them back to the wagon. When caught she was surrounded by a crowd of a thousand people and came near receiving rough treatment.

Superintendent Rudd of Mount Greenwood is one of the oldest and most experienced cemetery managers in Chicago. The many years he has been in his present position have given him great experience with the general public.

“I could tell you things which you would scarcely believe,” said Mr. Rudd.

“Incidents transpire in cemeteries which if told exactly as they occurred would receive little credence. One thing which would occasion great surprise is the little real sorrow and grief caused by death.

Grief Arithmetically Measured.

 “Most husbands are not hurt very much by the death of their wives. I don’t think over 20 per cent really feel badly wounded at heart when they hear the clods fall on the coffin lid. Wives are less heartless. About 40 per cent of wives, twice as many as the husbands, care considerably when their life partners are buried. Very few care when old people die. But when a mother leaves her child in the ground there are few instances when her heart is not almost broken. We once had a striking exception. A mother had just buried the third of her children who had died in quick succession of scarlet fever. The husband and wire had come from the grave to my office and were waiting for some papers. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, but the woman laughed and talked as if she were at a reunion in a beer garden. Finally the poor man could bear it no longer. Raising his clinched fist and cursing her, he advanced toward his wife and told her if she didn’t shut her mouth he would shut it for her.

“I remember one young man whose grief at the burial of his wife was heartrending. He screamed and cried until be could be beard clear across the hill. He threw himself on the coffin, and when it was lowered he tried to jump into the grave. Friends held him, and he was taken away almost fainting. Within a month the young man married again.

No Waking the Last Sleep.

“Very often in the winter husbands place their dead wives in the vault, and In the spring bring out wife No. 2 to see No. 1 put in the ground. Once an undertaker had occasion to open a coffin which was in our public vault. It was in the depth of winter, and the thermometer was below zero. The corpse looked very life-like, and after the undertaker went away he made some little remark about it. The little remark was repeated. It grew like a weed. It was enlarged and exaggerated until it was told over the entire neighborhood that a woman in a trance lay buried in the vault. The gossips did not stop to think that the body had been frozen solid for nearly a month. These stories, by the way, about people being buried alive are mostly manufactured for sensational purposes. I never heard of an authentic case, and I never met any one else who ever did.

Tricks of the Social Faker.

“Some queer and peculiar things are done out here by money ‘skinners.’ Who are thinking of saving every penny as much as they are of their grief. Two or three of the mourners will come out before the funeral and express their doubts as to whether we have a lot good enough for them. Then they conclude to place the remains in the vault temporarily.

The day of the funeral everything is imposing. The coffin is rosewood, or covered with plush or broadcloth, and there is a long line of fine carriages. Some time after the funeral the mourners will slip out to the cemetery, buy a single grave in the poorest, cheapest spot, and, without buying the $3 pine coffin-box, bury the casket in the ground. I remember well a heart-broken husband who came out to the cemetery to buy a lot and make arrangements for his wife’s funeral. The poor fellow could not restrain his feelings. Two big tears glistened in his eyes, and his voice quivered. He looked up at me through his glistening tears and said:

“‘Yes. It’s hard to (sob) bear. An’ it’s an awful (sob) trial (sob) to come out (sob) here and select this (sob) lot. I was wo-wonderin’ if you (sob) co-couldn’t gimme a little discoun-count for cash.’ (Long-continued sobbing.)

“I had another experience with a mourner of much the same character. ‘Now, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘there are going to be a lot of swell, rich people out here at my wife’s funeral tomorrow. They don’t any of ’em own lots here, but when they come out tomorrow and see what a magnificent place you’ve got they may buy. Well, you know, of course I’m sort of bringing ’em out here, and maybe you might sell ’em some lots several, perhaps and well. I didn’t know but you might feel like giving me a little commission on all the lots you might sell to any of em.”

Repentance and Black Stockings.

“A widower came to my foreman once with a proposition that had never been heard of before. Several months previous the man had buried his wife. He was a cheese-parer on money matters, and, I guess, he saved all he could on funeral arrangements. At the funeral, of course, only the face was exposed. The rest of the body could not be seen, and no one but the widower knew how well or how poorly it was arrayed. Evidently he got to thinking the matter over and decided he hadn’t given his dead wife a square deal. Well, sir, he came to my foreman with a long pair of black stockings, and wanted his wife taken up so that be could put them on her.”

All of the large cemeteries have had more or less experience with people who have been so unfortunate as to lose a limb. One day a man from Pullman appeared at Mount Greenwood with a tiny coffin, about nine inches long, under his arm. He had in the coffin two of his fingers which had been cut off by a buzz saw. Instead of throwing them away or burying them in his back yard he brought them to the graveyard, purchased a lot, and buried the fingers. Several years ago a woman, living on the South Side, had a leg amputated. It was buried in a family lot. Recently the woman died. Her relatives had the leg taken up and placed in the coffin. They said they did it so that she would be perfect in heaven.

Some Recent Legislation.

Cemetery people all over the state are laughing at the ridiculous law passed by the Legislature in regard to the use of wire designs for holding flowers. The law makes it unlawful for these designs to be used in any way a second time.

“It is one of the most laughable things 1 ever heard of,” said Superintendent Rudd. “I presume the law was passed on the theory that the wire might become infected with contagion. Of course that is preposterous, especially if the designs are repainted. I guess if the truth were known it would be found that some manufacturers had some new design they wanted to get on the market. Perhaps they persuaded the Legislature to cripple the old designs.”

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL[ 21 June 1896: p. 23

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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 )

Connecting to %s