As cemetery enthusiasts, we’ve seen the many ways people around the world honor their dead, from the moss-covered mausoleums of Edinburgh to candle-lit cemeteries in Italy. We’ve admired the small stones placed on Jewish graves in Jerusalem, the walls of urns in Japan, and Paris’ catacombs where bones are stacked and patterned in the underground ossuary. We love wandering through cemeteries with shady paths that invite us to meander and read the epitaphs to those gone before.
However a person is laid to rest, there is one thing all of these places have in common – they are vast libraries of unknown and untold stories. Sometimes the stories come to us easily, like following a gently worn path our ancestors left for us many years ago. Other times, the stories take hours of time and research to uncover. Each headstone, rock, photograph, or candle represents a life lived. A life that was undoubtedly filled with hopes and dreams, happiness and heartbreak. Each lie in rest with their mark left behind, their mark on our lives and also what was left in remembrance on their marker. Why do Find a Grave volunteers spend so much time photographing and documenting graves? Because we understand that this small act of service opens the door for others to discover their ancestors’ stories.
Frank Delaney said, “To understand and reconnect with our stories, the stories of the ancestors, is to build our identities.” When one walks up to a tombstone or a memorial site, there arises a feeling of brevity and wonder. You might run a finger across the etched birth and death dates. You know that between birth and death, there is a lifetime of stories. An understanding arises that they have been where you are now – and someday you will be where they now rest. When you stand before the grave of a loved one, you understand that their story intermingles with yours. Their influence has contributed to your own story.
One of our contributors, Paul Vogt, was recently on the receiving end of an amazing act of kindness. Paul’s great aunt Mary passed away in Detroit, Michigan, in 1905. Contaminated water caused a typhoid fever epidemic that swept through the city. Mary contracted the disease and died when she was just 22. Her family was devastated by the loss of their beautiful, dark-haired daughter. They purchased a marble headstone and Mary’s memory was immortalized. Years turned into decades and those who knew Mary passed on.
A few months back, Paul received a message from Jacquie, another contributor. In her research regarding cemeteries in Detroit she came across a memorial with information about headstones found underwater in a lake, about an hour outside of the city. She searched Find a Grave and learned that Paul managed a memorial matching the description of one of the headstones included with that information. Jacquie messaged Paul and ultimately she connected him with another friend who helped with her research and knew more about two of the Detroit cemeteries and a gravestone monument company. Like following a trail of breadcrumbs, Paul was led to where the stone could be found. He located the property owner and learned the stone was still in the lake (nobody knows how it got there!). It’s possible that the headstones found in the lake were were not originally placed on the graves because they had an inscription mistake.
Amazingly, the timing was perfect as the new owner was having his breakwall redone and offered to retrieve the headstone from the water if possible. Crews salvaged the headstone and Paul immediately came to retrieve it. He took his truck (and a strong friend) and picked up the 400-pound marble memorial to Mary. Because the cemetery where Mary is buried no longer allows marble markers, they brought the stone back to Paul’s home where it remains.
For Paul, this series of coincidences was more than that. “It’s amazing that my aunt was in the news after 110 years, amazing that a Find a Grave member informed me of the lost stone, amazing that I was able to retrieve the stone, and right after that, found a family scrapbook that had a picture of Mary in it.” Mary’s story is now connected to Paul’s story. He will never be able to look at Mary’s photo without contemplating the miracle of finding her memorial. We like to think Mary is smiling over the relationship she has formed with her great-nephew from beyond the grave.
Photo credit: Paul Vogt
The poet Rumi wrote, “On the day I die, when I’m being carried toward the grave, don’t weep. Don’t say, He’s gone! He’s gone. Death has nothing to do with going away. The sun sets and the moon sets, but they’re not gone. Death is a coming together. The tomb looks like a prison, but it’s really release into union. The human seed goes down in the ground like a bucket into the well… It grows and comes up full of some unimagined beauty.” The stories we discover and share are that unimagined beauty coming into full light.
In the end, not everyone’s resting place is going to be the same. It may be a manicured or overgrown cemetery, ashes scattered over a waterfall, a respectfully placed urn, a raised mound under the shade of a tree, or a marble stone immersed in a lake. Each grave represents the story of those who came before us. Thank you to all of our Find a Grave contributors. Your efforts help others uncover new stories every day!