A Cemetery is an Art Museum

Head stones are art objects. We don’t usually think of them that way, but they do exactly what art does. Each stone reflects the culture of its day. It’s a momento mori more effective than the Danse Macabre (“Dance with Death”). A concentrated few make an outdoor local art and history museum.

Mount Joy Cemetery is full of monuments bearing the names of German immigrant families who came with the railroad in the mid-19th century. Smaller individual stones with brief facts (“Ollie C., wife of C. W. Cressler, died Feb. 13, 1870 aged 23 years”) or family roles (“Father”) surround the large family marker. Most groupings include children who died before vaccines were common.

“Willie, Son of H.G. & E. Hollex, Aged: 11 Mos.”

On Wednesday morning, no other living humans were present except for the drivers along Highway 61. The road would have been there in 1875, when Johann Bahrenfuss passed away age 10, but the concrete and automobiles appeared long after George Washington Milton, Jr. died at eight years and eight months old in 1881.

I was there to take photos. I’d received an email from a woman in Marion, Iowa who wanted photos of her ancestors’ graves. I figured it was a good excuse to hang out in a small-town cemetery for a while.

My hometown and the surrounding area are full of little graveyards. Those outside the city – like Mount Joy – are the best for solitude and silence while spots like Oakdale are more fun for local history nerds.

That’s right, I called a cemetery fun. It’s more relaxing than any public park, with no screaming children to harsh your mellow. Built to be a place of solemn contemplation, you think about time and mortality, about change, and about what will become of the world after you die. Seeing a marker slowly sinking into the earth makes you wonder what kind of small monument you’ll have and how long it will even last.


Or maybe it’s just me. I feel the tendons in my arm sometimes and consider that one day they’ll have rotted away. The thought doesn’t really frighten me the way it did when I was a child. Instead, I’m baffled by the idea that this body, which is all I’ve ever known, is the cosmic equivalent of a wet paper bag.

A headstone is slightly more resilient. But only slightly.

All I could make out was “Feb. 21, 1871… E 56”

His name is no longer visible, but with minimal research, I determined this marker belongs to George W. Phillips. The date and location of his birth is unknown, but he was supposedly 56 years old when he died in 1871. That’s all I’ve found without delving too deep in archived newspapers or county records. With no known family to replace it, his stone is going to continue to degrade until there’s nothing left of it.

Of course, there’s likely nothing left of George W. Phillips, either. Even his skeleton would be quite brittle by now if it hasn’t decomposed entirely. Is it still George’s grave if there’s nothing left of him except – possibly – a few microscopic elements that were once part of his living tissue? If no one knows he’s there, does it matter if his grave marker disappears forever? Who’s going to come looking for him 147 years after he died?

Although, it looks like there was something inscribed toward the bottom of the stone. Someone must have cared enough about him to pay the stone carver the extra $$ to cut those details in small lettering. Maybe his relatives paid for it? Or members of his community?

I’m inspired to answer these questions, and if there are none to find, I may have to make up my own just to get some semblance of closure. What was George’s job? Did he live alone? Was he ever part of a scandal? How did he die?

While Mount Joy is a nice place to visit, with large shade trees and fascinating carvings, the presence of the highway kills the vibe for me. I’m looking for a graveyard at the end of a long dirt road, with a gate that’s never locked and grass that’s only cut once it starts to obscure epitaphs. There should be a fruit tree nearby if not on the actual property. If there was ever a church there, it’s gone now. Or in ruins.

But really, I’m just looking for an outdoor art museum. Somewhere I can enjoy selective input and few distractions. You never have to tell the dead to pipe down.

Also, I got some cool pictures of lichen:


I’m likin’ the lichen.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Have you been to the cemetery by tastee freeze on Rockingham? I found morels there. And the creepiest burial vaults – I’ll show you…

    1. mnhanson says:

      Nice! I love creepy burial vaults!