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  • Megann Horstead

Tombstones Talk teaches history behind cemeteries

Updated: Dec 17, 2020


Cortland resident Madison Heilemeier was among those taking part in the Ellwood House Museum’s Oct. 12 Tombstones Talk. She and her aunt, Mary McKinnell, headed out to Oakwood Cemetery on Saturday morning to view the tombstones and statues.

When asked what she likes the most about the program, Heilemeier said that learning about the cemetery’s history is interesting.

McKinnell agreed.

“The different symbols on the different tombstones—we’ve enjoyed seeing what it means,” the DeKalb resident said.

In partnership with DeKalb Township, the Ellwood House Museum held the seventh event of its Ellwood Explorers program.

“It’s a really cool way to share our community history with people,” said Audrey King, a curator for Ellwood House Museum.

King said there’s a lot to takeaway from Tombstones Talk.

“I think the symbolism on the tombstones is the thing I found interesting as I was learning about it,” she said. “There are some really cool tombstones here that are shaped like tree trunks. … That one symbolizes a life cut short. There’s stumps for members of the family, and different branches cut off for each time a family member died, or each one is marked for a family member who died.”

Before 1830, the U.S. didn’t have any “graveyards,” according to Ellwood House Museum literature. People were usually buried in churchyards, where friends and family could visit.

About that time, cemeteries started to be built outside of town to provide more space and maintain a cleaner image. In DeKalb, Oakwood Cemetery is the second oldest, right behind First Congregational United Church of Christ.

“We wanted to find a way to help shed more light on history that is found in our cemetery,” DeKalb Township supervisor Jennifer Jeep Johnson said. “There’s a lot of rich history here, and it’s kind of tucked back in [part of] the city that not a lot of people may their way to. We thought it would be a great way to put on an event that helps tie some of the modern-day practices with cemeteries to the history that we have here in our city, as well.”

The cemetery is in its seventh or eighth year of restoration, officials said. Modern-day cemetery practices differ from those done years ago.

“They’ve been slowly restoring stones,” Jeep Johnson said. “We found stones that we didn’t know existed. We found burial plots that never had any markers. There were no records to go with the cemetery. So, we’ve really been putting together the records as we’ve been doing the maintenance.”

King said it’s clear that cemeteries continue to be a popular gathering place for many people at about this time of year.

“It’s especially cool around Halloween time because cemeteries you think of them as being creepy or haunted and [they’re] not so much,” she said. “They’re not creepy when you get to know what they’re actually for and the history behind them as public parks. It’s cool to use [the cemetery to host a youth program] for that purpose.”

Elsewhere, people took part in cemetery tradition coming together for group picnics.

More than 20 people registered in advance for Tombstones Talk, which King said is great for the Ellwood Explorers program series.

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