Between the Covers
Helen Chappell's The Chesapeake Book of the Dead
reviewed by M.L. Faunce
They may be dead, but they're not silent
"You wouldn't come to see me when I was alive. Don't come to see me now that I'm dead."
-epitaph from tombstone near Stockton, Somerset County. Stolen; present whereabouts unknown
"It's so quiet here," my mother would say in all innocence, each time we visited the cemetery where my father is buried. Helen Chappell would appreciate the understated irony of that remark but likely she'd also beg for a story and then argue with the premise. For to this teller of tales and author, graveyards and the dead speak loudly.
In her latest book, The Chesapeake Book of the Dead, Chappell explains her lifelong interest in the lore and the gore of the places of the dead. In her girlhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a cemetery across the cove from her family's farm "was a source of endless fascination." Forbidden by her mother to explore the overgrown graveyard, she would in time discover in the abandoned tombstones, "my first understanding of the past as a place I found interesting."
Chappell has kept her ear to the ground ever since, and in this collection of "tombstones, epitaphs, histories, reflections, and oddments of the region," she unearths strange and wonderful stories that are part local history, part folklore and fully entertaining.
The Chesapeake region Chappell covers ranges from tiny country cemeteries of the swampy Eastern Shore to well-known resting places of both the famous and forgotten in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Tidewater Virginia. Among them are Congressional, Oak Hill and Rock Creek cemeteries in Washington, D.C.; Green Mount and Old St. Paul's in Baltimore; and numerous tiny burial grounds throughout the Eastern Shore.
Hers is a selective collection of stories of people who "once lived and breathed, loved, worked, fought, hoped and despaired, experienced their triumphs and failures just as we do today." The collection is not comprehensive, but the sampling will delight anyone who has ever prowled cemeteries in search of local history, their own genealogy or satisfaction of their curiosity.
Once, with her cousins as accomplices, Chappell tried to unearth an old wooden casket in an overgrown cemetery. Unsuccessful in their juvenile escapade and roundly scolded by Chappell's father, their cousins nonetheless succeeded in their true mission. That, Chappell says, was to "scare ourselves witless."
Chappell's neglected and nearly forgotten stories, some in local dialect, are a treasure trove. Under her guidance, we find the past chiseled in stone on tombstones still standing as stark testament to premature death by sickness and childbirth. Here, adorned with angels (or batwings), are words that will survive into another millennium:
Nothing became [his] life so much as his leaving of it.
-from an 1835 gravemarker
Farewell our friends and parents dear
We are not dead but sleepeth here
Our debts are paid, Our graves you see
Prepare yourselves to follow we
-for Jervis and Hannah Spencer, aged 13 and 15, who, according to local lore, died in a boating accident in 1743. Buried in Georgetown, Md., overlooking the Sassafras River.
To the author as a youngster, cemeteries were a place where "she could brood and dream and learn to love the forgotten dead." Which is perhaps why, included in the book, are four graveyard ghost stories from Kristine Neaton, age 12, a girl after Chappell's own heart. The seventh grader from Easton shares a story of the "half grave," broken in a storm one night.
"Okay. This lady, was a slave. She was hanged and she was trying to run away. If you go there at night and sit on the stone, she'll come out of the grave. There's a tree near it and a rope noose will dangle down. And she'll say, 'Get off my grave!' And if you don't get off her grave, she'll come out and follow you, and it's really scary."
Of course there's more to the story than that, but you'll have to read the book to find out why the stone is broken, and keeps breaking, no matter how many times it's replaced. As Kristine warns, "it's a scary story."
For more scary stories, fascinating fables and folklore, rich local history of the Chesapeake region and stark, artistic black-and-white photographs of crumbling tombstones, read Helen Chappell's The Chesapeake Book of the Dead. Or use the book as a guide to notable and neglected cemeteries in the region.
But remember, when you get there, it may not be all that quiet.
Treat Yourself to a Halloween Walk on the Quiet Side
Once I wasn't
Then I was
Now I ain't again
My fondness for cemeteries goes a long way back and isn't quite as macabre as it sounds. What interested me from the beginning was the discovery that gravestones are milestones.
As a young history buff, I first rubbed tombstones in churchyards near Boston Commons. Using charcoal and waxy butcher paper to trace epitaphs, I was impressed by the tender ages cut in stone throughout the burial ground. Puritan families in New England died young during harsh winters back in the 1600s.
This summer, when a college-age niece and friend visited, I was naturally pleased at their first sightseeing request. "I just love reading Edgar Allan Poe," a perfectly normal, upbeat college junior said, and off we went to Baltimore's Westminster Burial Ground to visit Poe's gravesite.
It was not Poe's life but more his afterlife that these two young, impressionable Southern women found romantic. Who hasn't read Poe who knows that each year on the poet's birthday a mysterious figure leaves roses and a bottle of brandy on his grave. The day we visited, more remains were about. Tins of cat food, placed beside and under headstones, signaled earthly care of the feline guardians of this place of rest.
Many make the pilgrimage to Poe's grave, charcoal and butcher paper in hand. Rubbing Poe's tombstone, they feel horror stories penned some 170 years ago are still very much alive. Noticing pennies placed on the edge of a nearby memorial to Poe, we followed suit, as if following some unwritten code. No use taking chances, we agreed thinking of some spell that might be cast upon us. You'd have to have been there, but cemeteries can affect people that way.
Most often, people form their thoughts about visiting cemeteries from their families. I remember Memorial Day visits to my grandmother's grave at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Washington. Those trips created a special bond between my mother and me for it was there that I learned about the grandmother I hadn't known in life. The times we spent talking easily in this setting probably helped soothe the biting cold day in January when my own mother was laid to rest.
Still, friends find it odd when they learn that my favorite tour ever was a stroll through Congressional Cemetery on Halloween. There's a lot to learn from poking around a graveyard on a beautiful day in the fall.
Who Lies Where
Discovering a simple, city-issued Civil War headstone at Congressional Cemetery for a great grandfather brought curiosity for a person I had never known. But nearby memorials to deceased of other families stirred me even more.
"My country gave me a medal for killing two men, and a dishonorable discharge for loving one," read the biting epitaph of a gay Vietnam vet. PushMaTaHa, the Chocktaw Chief who became a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, had his own powerful words cut in stone too. "Let the big guns boom over me," he prophetically proclaimed.
In the same range as my great-grandfather, a small, impressive relief is the image of Taza, son of Cochise. Buried at this historic cemetery near Capitol Hill are the chiefs of many Indian nations - Nez Percé, Cherokee, Chippewa, Apache - all who had come to Washington to negotiate treaties with the government. They died not in bloody, far-away places like Wounded Knee, but here in Washington of white man's diseases.
At historic Rock Creek Cemetery in northeast Washington, crypts and vaults and statuary provided concrete consolation to the grieving and fascinate today's visitors. The haunting and much-visited Adams Memorial features the draped mourning figure called Grief by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. And a huge mausoleum memorializing baking innovator Charles "Wonder Bread" Corby is not nearly so soft and white as we might expect - though the granite mass does resemble the famous loaf.
I've visited Forest Lawn Cemetery in Pasadena, California, the resting place of the rich and famous and the scene of a multitude of movie funerals in its many chapels. It's not a new idea. In Victorian days, people often enjoyed cemeteries as parks. "A calm retreat, away from the noise, bustle and weariness of the city," brochures promised.
Helen Chappell, Eastern Shore author of weird and wonderful tales of old cemeteries in her book The Chesapeake Book of the Dead, says "you'll be relieved to know that walking through old burial grounds is still popular with the living." She should know, having spent a lifetime prowling this fertile ground.
Hoping to lure a livelier crowd, huge, historic Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn wants tourists to stroll its scenic lawns. It seems the graveyard business is not what it used to be.
Sponsored by historical societies, tours of notable cemeteries are becoming popular for Halloween. Of course, you can plan a tour of your own to a local cemetery, to pay respect to the past and to the occasional ghost and goblin, searching out the oddities and reveling in anonymous epitaphs that put both life and death in perspective.
"Friend , as Ye Pass By
See the place where I now lie
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare for Death and follow me"
The pastime of visiting cemeteries gives what Chappell calls the pleasant melancholy feeling that is the perfect antidote to stress. When I visit, I always hear my mother say, "It's so quiet here."
| Issue 43 |
Volume VII Number 43
October 28-November 3, 1999
New Bay Times
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