Visiting Cemeteries is one of my hobbies. When I see a graveyard, especially an older one, I have to stop. I have seen so many of them that I have decided a bumper sticker with a warning is appropriate: Caution: I brake for cemeteries.
Every cemetery contains stories and circumstances that are intriguing to the visiting stranger. I have visited cemeteries at home and far away, and have found striking similarities despite the differences in location, circumstance, and language. It is a pastime which I can indulge in only when I am alone. I usually don’t have any other purpose other than curiosity when I go there. I find peace when I go to visit graveyards. I often discover that if I pay close attention to the markers and my own feelings that I can, in some way, commune with the spirits of the past. I think of death as a passing from one existence to the next. I feel that the spirits of those that are past exist on a plane that lies close to our own, and that if we are attentive we can feel their closeness.
When I visit cemeteries I sometimes feel sorrow; not for those who died, but for the loved ones they left behind. For the most part, I think that those who are gone to the next existence must be in a happier place.
I have heard of contemporary “ghost hunters” who visit graveyards at night, armed with tape recorders and infrared cameras. They go to cemeteries for reasons similar to my own. It’s an attempt to communicate with the history of the town; to make the past come to life. Ghost hunters want to feel, hear and see the spirits of those who once lived. Ghost hunters visit graveyards without fear or sadness. They go looking for physical evidence of life beyond the grave. My experiences are similar to ghost hunters; I go looking for spiritual evidence. Does that make me an angel hunter?
Last summer I visited Europe. While I was there, I explored the Jewish cemetery in Prague. Located in the Jewish sector of the old town, the Prague cemetery is the oldest Jewish cemetery to survive the Holocaust. I wanted to visit this cemetery because my grandmother was a Jewish refugee of the Holocaust. Most of her family disappeared during World War II. Visiting the cemetery in Prague was a way to connect with my ancestral past.
Back home in Utah, I found a cemetery in the small town of Plain City , close to Ogden. It contains the remains of some of the original Mormon pioneers. Although I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Utah, I often feel detached from the culture here. I have no pioneer ancestors in my genealogy like so many of Utah’s residents do. Visiting the graves of those who were religious refugees in a way that is similar to the Jews, makes me feel a little closer to my spiritual background.
As I wandered through the Plain City Cemetery, I found much of what I usually find: Parents, grandparents, children, spouses and soldiers. Some died young, some died old. I found evidence of sorrow and evidence of love left behind by caring survivors. I was drawn to a few particular graves. One large stone said “Mother” in large blocked letters. Behind a small moveable steel plate I found a black and white picture of a woman with kindly eyes and an easy smile. She looked like the kind of mother anyone would love. On the back of the stone were the names of twelve surviving children. It was a beautiful tribute to one who had fulfilled a life of motherhood in a way that few can. I walked back around to the front of the stone where I noticed below the name and picture, this inscription; “Tread softly, an angel lies here.” I always tread softly in graveyards. And on this particular morning, as I usually do in graveyards, I felt the presence of angels.
I was still unprepared for the tale of sadness which I would uncover on that day. One large needle-shaped stone points heavenward. To the right of this stone memorial, nine little stones are neatly arranged in two straight rows. Each stone says simply, “Skeen.” It often takes a little detective work to uncover the stories that are buried in cemeteries. This particular memorial is no exception. I hovered around the marker and its nine companions for over an hour. I took scrupulous notes, and came up with a story that I would love to tell one day, with the permission of the Skeen family.
The Skeen’s story is intriguing and sad. As far as I know, it has not been told. Maybe somewhere in the annals of the Skeen family history, a journal or a brief sketch of the family exists to help piece together the mystery. I’d like to find out.
The stories of the Jews are just as intriguing, and far more lamentable than the Mormon pioneer stories. It was so difficult for my grandmother to tell her own history that she refused to talk about it. Grandma probably couldn’t have told us much anyway. My mother tells me that she often heard my grandmother sobbing late in the night when she thought her family was sleeping. The holocaust was so hard on her, but we’ll never know why. Like the Skeens, Grandma’s story died with her.
As for the rest of this world, people come and go from this life on a daily basis. Some leave histories. Most don’t. Their voices are silent. Their stories die with them. My interest is to find stories that are worth telling and uncover their mysteries. There are some things that will never be known to the living, but the mysteries make great fiction.
–I guess the grass is itself a child . . . the produced babe of the
–now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women and from
offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.–
–O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows that there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward to life, and does not wait at
the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed and luckier.
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I
–from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman (2747-2748)
As I stoop to read old weather-beaten, time-worn headstones, I wonder as Whitman must have: If I had known them, would I have loved them? I wonder about the loved ones that were left behind. What kind of anguish was suffered at the untimely death of children? What kind of heartbreak occurred at the death of a beloved spouse? Was it a relief to know that long-term suffering had ended? What about the families of strong young men who left brave-hearted, and never returned from war? What kind of reunion took place between the spirits of those who quietly slipped away to join their loved ones beyond the veil?
These stories hang in the air at every grave site I visit. I have visited the death chambers of Dachau, and felt the Spirit of a Native American burial ground. Even so, two cemeteries have impacted my views on death more than any others: one in Plain City, Utah; the other in Prague, once an integral city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the capitol city of the Czech Republic. I was impressed that I could visit cemeteries on two different continents, and still feel the same reverence and unearth similar stories. One Christian, the other Hebrew, they seemed to be worlds apart, separated by an ocean, but the human impact will always be the same. I suppose the feelings and stories would impact me interchangeably if I had been in China, Africa, or a tropical rain forest.
I went to Prague just once, but I took many pictures. I used to live in Plain City, so I don’t need to take pictures, but I have visited the cemetery there many times. I used to like to visit at dusk in the summertime, as the activities of the day began to quiet down, and the spirit of the town began to prepare for a night’s rest. This time my visit occurred on a frosty November morning. This time I went with the purpose of finding a story. I was not disappointed.
Perhaps finding my first gray hair on that fall morning in Plain City was no coincidence. Time is marching on for me, and sooner or laterI will join my spiritual neighbors in death. I usually find consolation in visiting graveyards. I expected it to be no different on this crisp November morning. I came looking for peace and calming reassurance that the spirits of those buried there have received a release from their worldly bondage.
The graveyard in Plain City has many graves of Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains by wagon or handcart. These are the stories that I am interested in. Stories of faith and courage. Stories that ended in triumph as families settled into their new homes after surviving the long arduous trek across the plains. Many of these stories have been told somewhere in the annals of the family histories here in Utah. I have no such pioneer heritage, so the stories and faith of those pioneer people are unknown and yet intriguing to me, just as the untold stories of family members who were separated by the holocaust intrigue me.
I should have known that all of the pioneer stories didn’t end ‘happily ever after,’ but I was completely unprepared for the buried stories that had left tantalizing prefaces on the markers of graves here. People died so young in the early days of Utah’s history.
Memorials to so many children are located in the older end of the Plain City cemetery. I spent nearly an hour hovering around one large needle shaped memorial. At first I was intrigued about the family who had buried each of their children together. As I walked around the four sides of the stone though, an intensely tragic story began to unfold, and I discovered the preface to an unwritten book; one that I desperately wanted to read. Nine small stones lie neatly in two rows next to the memorial. Each stone says simply, “Skeen.” These little graves tell the beginning of a sorrowful journey for two saddened parents.
A man and a woman who had managed to successfully cross the plains as children with pioneer companies, fell in love and married, and set up a household for themselves and their growing family of children. Unfortunately, Caroline and William Skeen faced a tragedy of unspeakable proportions long after ‘happily ever after’ should have set in.
Apparently the story began in the fall of 1870 when one by one, each of the Skeen’s seven children began to fall ill. Whatever the epidemic was, the household must have been quarantined, because I was only able to find the grave of one other Plain City child who had died during these two months. It must have been six year old Jane who brought the illness into the household. On November twenty-third, the little girl succumbed to the illness and left this earthly life, leaving behind at least six siblings, a pregnant mother, and a worried father.
Less than three weeks later, Caroline Skeen gave birth to a baby who died on the same day it was born. One more spirit to keep little Jane company. Two days after the birth and death of the baby, the ten year old namesake of Caroline died. Maybe for a while it looked like the worst might be over, but after what must have been a very sad Christmas, two more of the Skeen children joined their siblings in death. Four year old Benjamin and five year old Elisha died on January third of the new year. By this time the epidemic was raging throughout the Skeen household, and nothing would stop it. Five days later two year old Thomas died, followed by seven year old Amanda on January tenth.
I wondered about the oldest child, William, who was thirteen when he died on January fifteenth. Was he hanging on in an attempt to care for his brothers and sisters? How the parents must have mourned as each of their children went to the grave, one after another, in such a short time.
The Skeen’s tragic story doesn’t end here, though. Caroline gave birth to a little girl nineteen months after the tragedy. Unfortunately, this little girl also joined her brothers and sisters in death just six years later. This is just the beginning of the untold story of William and Caroline Skeen. I wonder what their lives must have been like after the deaths of their children? Did they have any other children who survived?
Less than a century after the Skeen tragedy occurred, a new devastation began to unfold in the Old World. As the Holocaust swept over Europe, It wreaked larger destruction upon the inhabitants of the European continent than even the Skeen family could imagine. After those black days, one Jewish cemetery in Prague stood as a testament against Nazi snipers. The small plot in Prague escaped destruction, but “the dead nations never rise again (Longfellow 2704).” Like the graves in Plain City, each cemetery has its own tale of sorrow. Prague is no different.
How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves–
–The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.—
–How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o’er the sea–that desert desolate–
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?
They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.–
–Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where’er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.–
–And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
‘Till life became a Legend of the Dead.
But ah! What once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
– from The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (2702-2704)
I couldn’t read the headstones at the cemetery in Prague. Most of the markers were inscribed in “the mystic volume” of Hebrew, and other markers were in Slavic languages. Even so, the majority of the headstones were weathered to the point that they would have been nearly impossible to read in any language. I didn’t need to read them; the town’s history and the condition of the graveyard told its own intriguing story of heartache and struggle. Longfellow thought the Jewish cemetery in Maine to be strange. To me, it wasn’t strange or gratifying; it was sad and unjustified. Then again, the very existence of the cemetery tells a tale of triumph over the bigotry and hatred of the Holocaust.
The casual observer in the old Jewish sector would find “narrow streets and lanes obscure” just as Longfellow described; but the cemetery is hidden from casual view. The cemetery is located on a small hill completely enclosed by a stone fence. I don’t think that the hill occurs naturally. After 700 years of burials on such a paltry lot of land, it became necessary for the Hebrew community to bring in more soil to bury their dead.
Less than an acre of land. Seven hundred years of death. Men, women, children. Old and young. All of their dead went there. As the years went on, bodies were uncovered, lifted up and reburied with new companions. People who were total strangers, never met, and lived hundreds of years apart became roommates in death. Strange bedfellows.
Entering the cemetery from a busy street, one is met with an eerie silence. Brownish tombstones, large and small, rest grotesquely upon one another. Most of the stones are so old that the writing has been erased through years of wind and rain. The newer stones are written in Hebrew and couldn’t be read anyway. A pencil-thin pathway winds forlornly through the piles of hand-hewn rock. Above in the trees that serve to hide the sepulchral plot from mortal view, big black birds caw solitarily to one another, adding to the unearthly atmosphere. The calls reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s plea; “Is there–is there balm in Gilead? –tell me–tell me, I implore (1516)!” I almost expected to hear the raven’s plaintive cry of “nevermore!”
Death is always sad for the living. Billions of tears were shed worldwide for the loss of over six million lives of the holocaust. I am sure that the Plain City community mourned in a similar fashion for the loss of the Skeen children at what should have been a joyous time of the year. They were the tears of loss. Those who died may have been lucky, as Whitman put it, but those who were left behind lost a piece of their own lives as they put their loved ones into the ground. Often the only solace for the living is knowing that one day they will join their cherished families in death. If there is indeed life beyond the grave, then death cannot part loved ones, it only separates them for a while.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream: It may be so the moment after death (Hawthorne 21).” Is life nothing more than just a troubled dream? Sometimes I would like to think so. I am sure for each body that meets a mortal demise, there is a companion spirit that is alive and well somewhere. A spirit that is free from the cares of the world and no longer shares in the anxieties of mortal life.
I enjoy my life, I love my children, I have great friends. Even so, I anticipate that celebrated day when I can once again be with my grandparents, cousins and loved ones who have known me and loved me without my earthly knowledge. What a reunion it will be. I can only imagine the bliss of freedom from worldly sin and sorrow. Will my spirit mourn those whom I leave behind like those who are left behind mourn? It’s a question that can only be answered in death.
I have always wanted to be a published writer. I haven’t tried to get my work published yet, although I feel like I’ve made a pretty good start on various ideas. I doubt that anyone takes my writing very seriously yet. Perhaps they will in the near future; if my published works are good enough. But when I’m dead, I think that people will be far more interested in my stories. After all, history is far more intriguing than our own mundane lives. When my voice is finally silenced by death, my own story will take on a mysterious quality. Today I wander through graveyards and wonder about the stories of the souls who were buried there. One day, a total stranger will take a stroll through an old graveyard. She will stoop to read an old weather-beaten, time-worn headstone and wonder about the life of the woman whose bones lie beneath it. They will be mine.
Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.” Lauter 2702-2703.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven.” Lauter 1514-1517.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Lauter 2743-2793.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. American Notebooks