Grave matters

The dead still have things to teach us

Cemeteries are not only places to park dead uncles while they await their maker. They also are, or were, parks, picnic grounds, trysting places, settings for patriotic rituals and party venues for teens happy to find one place where their elders didn’t shout at them to quiet down. 

But cemeteries also can be classrooms.Any person who has researched her family’s history has discovered that many a story begins at the end, with the name and birth and death dates of a relative found on a tombstone. However, one can find a lot of history in the graveyard itself – where it is sited, who lies in it, how it is laid out, how the graves are marked. (Including, by the way, the history of words. “Cemetery” is a Victorian euphemism meaning “resting place.” “Graveyard” is a franker term, and “burial ground” franker still.) In addition to dates, the stones themselves can tell you about art and anthropology and history, once you learn their language.

In addition to being Springfield’s prettiest neighborhood, for example, Oak Ridge Cemetery is the city’s most interesting place to visit, with the exceptions of Lincoln’s home and the kitchens of any of the city’s new restaurants. This city of the dead observed all the customs of its living host, being segregated by race and religion. The cost of graves being relatively modest, it is less rigidly stratified by class; dying and being buried at Oak Ridge remains the only way that Springfieldians of middling means can live in a nice part of town.

Oak Ridge, a large municipal cemetery, is far from typical of the burial sites in Illinois. There are family plots, old church graveyards, country cemeteries and Indian burial mounds. (I do not count as burial places, as indeed municipalities do not, the crematory urn where Grandma lives on the living room shelf, where she can keep on watching the Cubs.)

A useful Baedeker to such places is a new book from the University of Illinois Press titled Illinois Cemeteries: A Field Guide to Markers, Monuments, and Motifs. The authors are archaeologist Hal Hassen and anthologist Dawn Cobb, who served the people at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Among other information, Hassen and Cobb offer a photo glossary of marker types, observations on cemetery form and ruminations about how burial and grieving customs vary from era to era and from group to group. Also included are maps showing representative graveyards around the state. (Their list includes three in Sangamon County – Springfield’s Oak Ridge, Constant, southeast of Buffalo Hart, and Fancy Creek north of Sherman.)

The obvious parts of any cemetery are the grave markers. The style and materials of markers, indeed whether graves are marked at all, varies with the social class and ethnicity of the burier and the technology and trade of the time. Indians of certain eras, for instance, buried emblems of status with the corpses, where they might be used by the dead on their spirit journey; we put status indicators above ground, where they can be admired by the living. Of the latter, our authors give us examples of found rocks or wood plus the more common markers of carved sandstone, limestone and marble and granite. (A dead man might not ever find eternal life but his grave might if it’s marked with granite.)

Grave markers are rich with poetry, metaphor and allusion; compared to, say, a speech by Bruce Rauner, grave markers can be as eloquent as Shakespeare. The monuments, sculptures and plaques at Oak Ridge Cemetery have been ably inventoried by the Volkmanns, Carl and Roberta, at

Cemeteries, so rich in history, risk becoming historic artifacts themselves. Cemeteries are being lost to development, to farming, to neglect. Then there is the trend (not yet large, but growing) toward woodland burials and cremation, which leave nothing above or below ground, in acceptance of the oblivion that awaits. (See “Underground movements,” Nov. 12, 2009.)

One thinks of cemeteries as places of eternal rest but they are not. Oak Ridge contains reburied remains rescued from more than a dozen smaller cemeteries that were emptied so their sites could be built on. It is a pretty thought to imagine that the site of Oak Ridge was picked to provide a scenic and serene setting in which the dead might enjoy eternal rest. The fact is that graves were put here because the land couldn’t profitably be used for anything else, the terrain being too rugged. Our intrepid capitalists build in floodplains and atop coal mine tunnels, however, and the only thing that has dissuaded city councils from selling off bits of Oak Ridge as sites for carpet remnant boutiques or car washes is the presence of Lincoln – until that day when we forget who Lincoln was.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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