Archive for the ‘Graveyard Visits’ Category

I’ve always loved cemeteries, especially when I became old enough to appreciate the historical aspects of them. Infatuated with the past and the stories it has to tell, I happily wandered through graveyards, whether I knew anyone buried there or not, reading stones and wondering about circumstances and imagining the deceased’s journey from the East Coast or Ireland or Germany in the 19th century; or the soldier’s experiences in war and his life in the years that followed, however many years those were.

I think the experience of two family members, my father being one of them, dying in the past six months has had an impact on the way I think about cemeteries. It’s brought me face-to-face with the realization that people I knew and love are in boxes deep under the ground beneath my feet.

This came home to me with special force the past couple of days after I accidentally set the cemetery picture of my mother and niece and nephew that appeared in this post as wallpaper on my computer screen. With that big image before me, it’s as if I’ve suddenly developed x-ray vision and can see beneath the grass to all those many, many coffins under the long expanse of headstone-studded lawn. I stare at that photo and imagine Grandpa lying there in his casket as I recall him from the visitation over 31 years ago: horribly flat and stiff, dressed in his colors, marks on his nose where he scraped the racetrack when he fell (or where the horse caught him with a metal shoe or the sulky tire ran over his face – just this year I heard new details that somehow had never been related before).

And under every one of those numerous headstones in that picture lies a fixed corpse like his. It’s a different perspective from strolling through an anonymous cemetery, especially a very old one, where the dead and their coffins may have gone back to dirt and the stones are more like memorials to the idea of that person, not a marker flagging the location of a physical body. It’s not that I haven’t always known all this. I have. In fact, that’s probably why, going back to adolescence, I’ve wanted to be cremated when I die. Many of the adults in my close circle of family feel the same way. I think I’ve come to a point where sprinkling ashes, or even burying them in a container, seems more civilized and more spiritual than the ghastly notion of preserving flesh and storing it underground indefinitely.


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Tombstone of John Alonzo Applegate

My maternal grandfather, John Alonzo Applegate, died on June 20, 1978. He was a harness horse driver and had just finished second in back-to-back races at the old Latonia racetrack, now Turfway Park. Although the racetrack is thoroughbred-only now, for a long time Latonia Trots had a summer standardbred meet. (Funny they don’t mention that in their online history.)

Grandpa was turning the horse around to come back and “salute the judge” when he fell off the sulky. Medical people said he was dead of a massive heart attack before he hit the racetrack. We know a lot of eye-witness details because my father happened to be at the racetrack that night and saw everything.

My grandparents were divorced at the time, and Grandpa’s common-law wife made the funeral arrangements, choosing to have Grandpa buried in Hamilton, Ohio, where they were living, in the Greenwood Cemetery. I was there the day they laid Grandpa to rest, and visited again over the Memorial Day weekend in 1980. I hadn’t been back to the site since then, although of course I’ve been to Hamilton many times over ensuing years.

My mother had never been back at all. When we were discussing with Diamondqueen and the Hooligans what to do outside on such a gorgeous, warm day, Mom asked if we could go up to visit Grandpa’s grave. “Maybe for the last time,” she told us. “It took me 31 years to get up here again.”

Mom had directions, but it still took us a while to track down Grandpa’s grave. I snapped the photo below of Mom and the two Hooligans – great-grandchildren he never knew, and to them he’s just a vague story and a man in a photo riding a horse-driven sulky. (Diamondqueen herself was only eight years old when Grandpa died.)

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S.Hooligan, Mom, and J.Hooligan at Grave

It’s hard to tell in the photo at left, but the Butler County Fairgrounds is in the background. In fact, over Mom’s right shoulder is one of the barns and the roof of the old grandstand. One thing I remember about Grandpa’s burial is looking over there and seeing the fairgrounds, and thinking how appropriate it was that horse barns and a racetrack were within view of his grave. It also made me sad – I’d spent many years as a child watching Grandpa race at that track. I have memories going back to when I was five years old playing down in the well of an old dry fountain on the fairgrounds while Mom sat above on a lawn chair; and of gathering thrown-down betting tickets along the fence during the long waits for Grandpa’s races. I once shouted at him during the pre-race parade from that grandstand; Mom and Grandma shushed me, but they laughed when we saw Grandpa grin. He’d heard me!

I wish Grandpa wasn’t up there by himself in that cemetery; there are no other family members buried there. Then again, the situation was awkward and relations were strained by that time. And when he was absorbed in his horses, he always seemed kind of isolated from the rest of us anyhow.

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Yep, we got back from our trip on Monday–totally worn out but having had a great time. It’s taken me all week to recover (and to enhance the digital photos I took). Now I’m ready to relate a few of our adventures and to post an image or two.

We drove to Virginia via southern Ohio into West Virginia. We had a few route options, but I noticed one would take us right past Point Pleasant, West Virginia. That meant we could make a brief visit to the Mothman before continuing our journey.

In spring of 2007 I made a weekend trip with Diamondqueen and the Hooligans to Point Pleasant. We stayed in the old hotel, visited the Mothman Museum, contemplated the site of the Silver Bridge collapse (at least I did, since I remember vividly when it happened), and ventured out to some old bunkers near the dynamite factory where Mothman sightings had occurred. J.Hooligan was very big into Mothman at the time, and he was quite impressed with the entire experience. So, being in the vicinity, we just had to drop by and say hello. (Diamondqueen observed that the Mothman statue looks a lot like the 17-year cicadas that have been plaguing us in eastern Hamilton County for several weeks. I agree. I think it’s the bulging red eyes.)

Our drive was long but pretty through the mountains. We arrived in Lexington, Virginia early in the evening, but too late for any of the Civil War-related attractions I wouldn’t have minded revisiting (like the Lee Chapel or the VMI Museum). After a brief rest Diamondqueen and I did lure the kids back into the van with the promise of ice cream. First we took a drive around town (I love Lexington’s streets and old buildings), showing J.Hooligan the ruins of Liberaty Hall, the original school that predated Washington-Lee University. (J. has claimed to be interested in things from the Colonial period, but he was under-enthused by the ruins. “I’m not really into history,” he said later in the trip. “He used to be,” Diamondqueen groused.)

At the very least I wanted to take a walk through the old cemetery. I’m not a fan of Stonewall Jackson, but I like to stroll past his statue whenever I visit. Again, the Hooligans were unimpressed, partly because they don’t know anything about General Jackson and don’t want to learn. Diamondqueen and I found it amusing that someone had tossed lemons at the foot of the statue in tribute, even though the story about Stonewall Jackson sucking on lemons during battle is supposed to be apocryphal.

Here’s a photo of the Hooligans in front of the Stonewall Jackson statue. Note the condition of the fence. Also note that the Hooligans did NOT do the damage. Possibly a tree fell on it, since there was evidence nearby (toppled tombstones, a fresh stump, great quantities of sawdust). I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the lemons, too.

There were only two times the Hooligans appreciated our cemetery visit. Once was when we saw huge ravens swooping overhead. One perched on the bare limb of a tree, creating such an eerie image that Diamondqueen tried to snap a photo, but the big bird spread its huge inky wings and sailed away. The Hooligans seemed to appreciate the ravens, though.

The other time was when I spotted a 19th century tombstone with the family name of Bumpus*. “Sons of b#tches! Bumpuses!” I cried in my best imitation of the father from A Christmas Story. Both kids thought this was hilarious and demanded I do it over and over until I wanted to crawl under the sod with the Bumpus clan.

We did go for ice cream finally, at a Dairy Queen in a gas station across from our motel. It’s just as well I don’t do reviews of restaurants and such. I wouldn’t have been flinging many stars at this place. (A surly server, and my waffle sundae looked NOTHING like the one in the TV commercials!)

*With apologies to any member of the Bumpus family, in Lexington or anywhere else. I see from an 1860 census of Lexington that there were several Bumpus (or Bumpuss, Bumpass, or Bumpas) men in service during the Civil War.


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This page of the altered photo album I made for Mother’s Day 2007 features my great-great-grandmother Emily (Creager) Conover. She was married to William Henry Conover, son of James Conover, Civil War prisoner and possible victim of the Sultana explosion.

I thought of Emily Conover over the Memorial Day weekend. I think of her every Memorial Day because hers was one of the graves we always visited when I was a child.

Sometime in May (maybe it was on our holiday for the Ascension  — it always seemed to be on a weekday, but we weren’t out of school for the summer until early June), we’d have an outing to Warren County to visit the Morrow and Maineville cemeteries. These held the graves of Grandma’s and Great-Grandma’s people, including Great-Grandma’s mother, Emily Conover.

We usually had a picnic lunch somewhere (often at a roadside park near the bridge over Fosters; the park no longer exists). The party consisted of my mother, Grandma, Great-Grandma, me, and my brothers (Diamondqueen wasn’t to come for several years yet). On each of these outings, Great-Grandma told the story of her mother’s death and funeral.

The story she passed down was that her mother was very pregnant. The piano teacher had arrived for a home lesson, and Emily Conover didn’t want to be seen. So, the way Great-Grandma put it, she “climbed” out of a window and fell. Mom and I have wondered about that over the years. Maybe it was one of those very tall windows that open almost like a door. We can’t imagine a pregnant woman climbing out of a window, especially one who considered it inappropriate simply to be viewed by the piano teacher.

Whatever the case, Emily fell. She lost the baby and died herself. Great-Grandma said they buried her with the baby in her arms. I used to gaze at Emily’s grave feeling sad and a little haunted. It was a terrible, tragic story. A few years ago I found a death record for Emily Conover, and she did indeed die in childbirth. Whether a fall out a window was the cause wasn’t indicated.

Either going into or leaving Maineville, Great-Grandma would point out where her house had been at the time her mother died. We’d see a long avenue lined with trees leading to a two-story brick house. Great-Grandma was very young when her mother died, but one of her memories was of that long driveway being lined with carriages on the day of the funeral.

Maineville isn’t far from Loveland, so it’s easy to drop in on Maineville Cemetery. We have quite a few ancestors in the old section (more, in fact, than we realized when I was a kid, thanks to genealogical research). In the new section nearby, my stepfather is buried, and my mother will lie there one day as well (a LONG time from now, I hope). She thinks about Emily Conover, too, and says she likes the idea of her grave being within sight of Emily’s — that woman buried with her child in her arms, recalled by her elderly daughter, who lived so many more decades than her mother.

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Everyone knows about the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, in which 1,517 lost their lives. Few have even heard of the steamship Sultana, which went down in the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865; the tragedy cost about 1,700 lives.

I’d never heard of the Sultana disaster until a brief mention of it in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. Even in its brevity, it was horrifying: The victims were primarily Union soldiers recently released from Southern prisoner camps. To think that they’d already gone through so much, from battle to the terrible prisons, only to be killed en route to their homes, and in such a agonizing way — it was heartbreaking and seemed so grossly unfair.

Later, as I dabbled in genealogy, I learned I might have a link to the Sultana. It took me completely by surprise.

My great-great-great-grandfather, James Conover, enlisted in the 175th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry in October of 1864. In November, he was one of several members of the 175th captured near Columbia, Tennessee; he was sent to Cahaba (or Cahawba) Prison in Albama. Here, according to his military records, James Conover died in February, 1865.

There’s conflicting information, though, regarding whether James Conover might actually have died in the Sultana disaster. One book I read on the event listed his name as one of the victims. The problem is, record-keeping was unreliable regarding what happened at the prison AND regarding prisoners who were loaded onto the Sultana. (One reason so many died was because far too many passengers were crowded onboard.) I’ve read other articles that say some bodies were dug up from the Cahaba Prison cemetery, but when they were being moved, there was another boat accident and some of the bodies floated away and were never recovered. So that makes definitive research even harder. There’s a wonderful Conover genealogical site, and it combines the data for James Conover’s death, stating he died February 17, 1865 — but seven miles north of Memphis aboard the Sultana. So it’s a difficult mystery to unravel.

I doubt I’ll ever know what happened for sure to my great-great-great-grandfather. My instinct is that he probably did die in Cahaba Prison; but no doubt many of his comrades, including friends from his home area in Brown County, Ohio, perished in the Sultana tragedy.

None of this was ever passed down through family oral history, which is curious to me. Grandma Martha loved to tell family stories; if she’d known anything about her great-grandfather, she would have shared it. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War, and I didn’t know until I started doing some research that I even had ancestors who had fought. (I have several.)

In Bloom Rose Cemetery in Brown Country, where a lot of my maternal ancestors are buried, there’s a white pillar near the front gate. I’d never read the names on that pillar in all the years I’d visited there with Grandma Martha, but out of genealogical curiosity I finally did one day. It turns out that pillar is a monument to those local soldiers who never returned from the war. One of the names on that pillar is James Conover. (The wife he left behind, who died in June of that same year, is buried nearby.) It’s only one of the things I’ve discovered about my mother’s family that I wish I could tell Grandma now. She would have been fascinated.

There’s another less personal connection to the steamship Sultana that I never knew until recent years. The Sultana was actually built in Cincinnati. A few years ago an historial marker was erected near Sawyer Point in the vicinity of the Cincinnatus statue (if I’m remembering correctly).

If you’re interested in learning about a maritime disaster that cost even more lives than the sinking of the Titanic, sites like this one have lots of information about the Sultana.




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