Chestnut Grove Cemetery – Ashtabula, OH

Gravetender Hubby, Gravetender Toddler and I recently went on vacation to visit family in Ashtabula, OH. The weather was great, the air was sweet and we had a wonderful time at Walnut Beach on the shores of L. Erie. We also made a visit to Chestnut Grove Cemetery (I just can’t help myself). One of the oldest cemeteries in Ashtabula, Chestnut Grove is the home of the unidentified victims of the Ashtabula Train Disaster – a horrific train disaster that occurred on December 29, 1876.

Here’s what happened on that fateful night:

The Ashtabula bridge designer, Amasa Stone, was the President of the Lake Shore Michigan Southern Railroad – Cleveland and Erie Division from 1856 to 1867. During his Presidency, he decided to take a well-established wooden bridge pattern (the Howe Truss) and use it as the pattern for an all iron bridge. He designed this bridge without the approval of any competent engineers with iron bridge experience and against the protest of the engineer who was hired to draft the drawings.

Charles Collins, the Engineer in Charge, was the man responsible for overseeing bridge inspections for the entire line. Unbelievably, Stone did not include Collins in any aspect of the bridge’s design, construction, or erection. Perhaps that’s the reason Collins took such little interest in the bridge. Placed in a difficult situation, Collins was charged with the maintenance and care of a long, all iron bridge when he knew little about its unique technical requirements. A conscientious and sensitive man, the grief over this tragedy almost overwhelmed him. There were reports he wept bitterly when he saw the aftermath of the crash.

The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, left a snowy Erie, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of December 29, 1876. As The Pacific Express plowed through the snow and crossed a bridge over the Ashtabula River, about 100 yards (90 m) from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio, the passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. In just seconds, the bridge fractured and the train plunged 70 feet (21 m) into the water.

The lead locomotive “Socrates” made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive, “Columbia” and 11 railcars including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, two passenger cars, three sleeping cars and a caboose fell into the ravine below, then igniting a raging fire. The wooden cars were set aflame by kerosene heating stoves and lamps. Some cars landed in an upright position, and within a few minutes small, localized fires became an inferno.

The rescue attempt was feeble at best because of the ill-preparednessof the nearby station to respond to emergencies. Of 159 passengers and crew on board that night, 64 people were injured and 92 were killed or died later from injuries sustained in the crash (48 of the fatalities were unrecognizable or consumed in the flames). It is unclear how many died of the fall, separate from the blaze. Twenty years later, in Ashtabula’s Chestnut Grove Cemetery, a monument was erected to all those “unidentified” who perished in the Ashtabula Railroad disaster.

Charles Collins, among others, was forced to testify before an investigative jury about the accident. Days after completing his testimony, Collins was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. Originally, Collins was believed to have committed suicide out of grief and feeling partially responsible for the tragic accident. A police report at the time suggested the wound had not been self-inflicted, however no real investigation was attempted due to raw nerves surrounding the tragedy. Recent documents discovered in 2001 revealed, thorough examination of Charles Collins’ skull, the conclusion that he had indeed been murdered. He was entombed in his own mausoleum yards away from the victims’ mass grave.

Amasa Stone was found partly responsible by the investigative jury and committed suicide seven years later.

So sad.

Here are the pictures I took at Chestnut Grove Cemetery:


Base of Train Disaster Memorial

Another Inscription

Charles Collins’s Mausoleum

Mausoleum Gates Locked Tight

Name in stone

‘Wine Cork’ Headstone

One word says it all

View of cemetery

War Veteran

Buried in the Front Yard

front yard/grave yard

Is it OK to bury your loved ones in the front yard? If you live in Stevenson, AL, probably not:

James Davis is fighting to keep the remains of his late wife right where he dug her grave: In the front yard of his home, just a few feet from the porch.

Davis said he was only abiding by Patsy Ruth Davis’ wishes when he buried her outside their log home in 2009, yet the city sued to move the body elsewhere. A county judge ordered Davis to disinter his wife, but the ruling is on hold as the Alabama Civil Court of Appeals considers his challenge. Davis, 73, said he never expected such a fight.

“Good Lord, they’ve raised pigs in their yard, there’s horses out the road here in a corral in the city limits, they’ve got other gravesites here all over the place,” said Davis. “And there shouldn’t have been a problem.”

While state health officials say family burial plots aren’t uncommon in Alabama, city officials worry about the precedent set by allowing a grave on a residential lot on one of the main streets through town. They say state law gives the city some control over where people bury their loved ones and have cited concerns about long-term care, appearance, property values and the complaints of some neighbors.

“We’re not in the 1800s any longer,” said city attorney Parker Edmiston. “We’re not talking about a homestead, we’re not talking about someone who is out in the country on 40 acres of land. Mr. Davis lives in downtown Stevenson.”

A strong libertarian streak runs through northeast Alabama, which has relatively few zoning laws to govern what people do with their property. Even a neighbor who got into a fight with Davis over the gravesite — Davis said he punched the man — isn’t comfortable with limiting what a homeowner can do with his property.

“I don’t think it’s right, but it’s not my place to tell him he can’t do it,” said George W. Westmoreland, 79, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam. “I laid my life on the line so he would have the right to do this. This is what freedom is about.”

Westmoreland declined to discuss his specific objections to the grave.

It’s unclear when the appeals court might rule. Attorneys filed initial papers in the appeal on Friday. The decision could come down to whether the judges believe the front-yard grave constitutes a family plot that requires no approval or a cemetery, which would.

As it is, Davis said his five children will bury him in the yard beside Patsy after he dies, and they and his 15 grandchildren will care for the property from then on.

“That’s my perpetual care,” said Davis, referring to the city’s worry about what the grave will look like after he dies.

Davis is adamant that he won’t move the body, regardless of what any court says.

“If they get it done it’ll be after I’m gone,” said Davis. “So if they order her to be moved, it’s a death sentence to me. I’ll meet Mama sooner than I planned on it.”

Now that’s called standing your ground.

Picnics, Movies & Graveyards

Cover of "The Terminator [Blu-ray]"

Summer – warm sunshine, sparkling pools and picnics in the park cemetery while watching a movie. Really, this happens. Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA, the final resting place of numerous Hollywood stars (Douglas Fairbanks, Jayne Mansfield), shows movies on the lawn on a regular basis. Tickets are $10 and if you want a good spot it’s best to arrive early. This weekend they’re showing ‘The Terminator’ at 8:30pm.

What better way to spend a pleasant summer evening? Just pack a picnic basket, grab some blankets and lay down in a graveyard. I’ve never watched a movie in a cemetery but I think it’s a great idea. You get to enjoy the fresh air, watch the sunset, hang out with family/friends all while enjoying the best Hollywood has to offer.

And then there’s the atmosphere of a cemetery at night. I’m sure after the movie a few dare-devil types venture deep into the cemetery grounds to try and scare up some ‘paranormal activity.’ In fact, I bet I could find some grainy video of just such antics on YouTube if I searched hard enough. But I digress…

The practice of communing in cemeteries isn’t new. In the 1800’s, families would spend Sunday afternoons in the graveyard with their loved ones, both dead and alive. It was considered a good way to reconnect with those who had passed on. You won’t see too many get-togethers at the family plot these days however. Life is different and most people rarely visit the cemetery unless it’s Memorial Day. But as the popularity of the movie screenings at Hollywood Forever Cemetery shows, you can have good times in the graveyard. Call your local cemetery today and ask them where the best spot is to picnic. You might be surprised at the answer.

Fracking in Cemeteries

Against fracking 01

So it has come to this. In the never-ending quest for profit alternative forms of energy, natural gas companies are looking to drill in cemeteries. Yes, fracking is coming to a graveyard near you.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on fracking but I did watch that Oscar-nominated documentary about the process and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. As did this story about leasing mineral rights in cemeteries – some highlights:

Loved ones aren’t the only thing buried in the 122-year-old Lowellville Cemetery in eastern Ohio. Deep underground, locked in ancient shale formations, are lucrative quantities of natural gas.

Whether to drill for that gas is causing soul-searching as cemeteries – including veterans’ final resting places in Colorado and Mississippi – join parks, playgrounds, churches and residential backyards among the ranks of places targeted in the nation’s shale drilling boom.

Opponents say cemeteries are hallowed ground that shouldn’t be sullied by drilling activity they worry will be noisy, smelly and unsightly. Defenders say the drilling is so deep that it doesn’t disturb the cemetery and can generate revenue to enhance the roads and grounds.

“Most people don’t like it,” said 70-year-old Marilee Pilkington, who lives down the road from the cemetery in rural Poland Township and whose father, brother, nephew and niece are all buried there.

“I think it’s a dumb idea because I wouldn’t want anyone up there disturbing the dead, number one, and, number two, I don’t like the aspect of drilling,” she said.

Township trustees received a proposal this year to lease cemetery mineral rights for $140,000, plus 16 percent of any royalties, for any oil and gas. Similar offers soon followed at two other area cemeteries

John Campbell, a lease agent for Campbell Development LLC, a company based in Fort Worth, Texas, declined a request for more information on his proposal, which was not expected to stir any graves. He said only that the offer was not accepted.

It was just more fuel for drilling opponents in the Youngstown area, already rocked by a series of earthquakes that have been tied to deep-well injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities. They’re now fighting for a citywide drilling ban.

Concerns are driven largely by a lack of information, said John Stephenson, president of the Texas Cemeteries Association.

“A lot of it just has to do with the way that it’s presented,” he said. “You’re hundreds of feet below the ground, and it’s not disturbing any graves.”

It’s possible to reach oil and gas deposits now from drilling rigs placed sometimes miles away because of advances in what’s called horizontal drilling. The technology has made vast new shale energy deposits available under the Northeast, Texas and elsewhere.

Stephenson leased mineral rights under two of his cemeteries within the past three years, he said. Each is about a century old and populated with 75,000 graves. Revenue from the leases – he wouldn’t say how much – has allowed him to pave roads, repair fences and make other improvements during economic hard times.

Plot owners have no legal claim to the mineral rights at a cemetery, Stephenson said. Their agreements are for an indefinite rental of sorts at the surface level – and a promise the site will be maintained, he said.

Well. Is nothing sacred anymore? Not even the land where our ancestors are buried? What do you think of fracking in cemeteries?

Gravetender Book List

Cover of "A Graveyard Preservation Primer...

Summer’s almost here and that means it’s time to catch up on your reading. What’s on your Book List? I’m currently reading ‘A Graveyard Preservation Primer’  by Lynette Strangstad. Yes, I know…not exactly a can’t-put-it-down thriller novel but still interesting nonetheless. My local library had a copy (surprisingly it wasn’t checked out) and in its pages I’ve come across some great ideas. For those trying to figure out what to do with the kids this summer, check out these suggestions in Chapter 2:

“Graveyards as an Educational Tool”

“Experience has shown that one of the best ways to protect graveyards is to educate the public that frequents them as to their importance and their charm. This applies to the general public, but paticularly to schoolchildren, since introducing a new generation to the significance of gravestones goes far toward having a concerned adult populace in later years.

Field trips make a graveyard “come alive” for children in the best sense of the phrase. Simply including early graveyards among the trips to museums and other cultural resources reinforces the fact that graveyards are among these treasures and are to be treated as the outdoor museums they are. Such trips are also effective in dispelling children’s occasional fear of graveyards, which is often brought on by movies and shared stories.

Varying age groups will require different activities, of course. The few suggestions that follow are intended only to indicate the variety of activities and the various age groups that can be involved.

A scavenger hunt to see who can find, for example, the most stones with cherubs on them

An English lesson in which students seek out the nonstandard spellings of words common prior to about 1790, as well as archaic words or phrases.

A history lesson in which students identify particular historical facts or personages on the stones themselves.

An art lesson where students identify favorite stones; photograph stones; create original artwork using some of the same motifs.

A sociology lesson in which students gather date for a particular decade, using the graveyard as a source.

A geology lesson in which students identify the variety of stones represented.”

These all sound like fun ideas. I’ll be trying them out with Gravetender Toddler when he’s older!

What are you reading this summer?


Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

English: A grave in Eloise Woods Community Nat...

What happens when you die? (Hint – the answer is simple and non-religious). When you die, your body decomposes, your flesh wastes away and eventually only your bones and teeth remain but in time, these too crumble into dust.

Sorry! Didn’t mean to get all gory on you but that’s what happens. So why bother with caskets, coffins and pine boxes? Well, some people don’t:

You’ve heard of greening your life. But an increasing number of people are now planning to be eco-conscious even in death. Called natural burial, the eco-friendly final resting place is a plot of land in a field, and little else. No chemical embalming process, no lacquered casket, and in some cases, not even a tombstone.

“The underlying principal is to allow the human remains to return to the earth as naturally as possible,” said Rick Cowan, spokesperson with Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries.

On Monday, the company’s Brampton cemetery, Meadowvale, opens the GTA’s first natural burial site. While the practice has become widespread in Europe — the first site opened in the UK 20 years ago — it’s only beginning to catch on in North America. Meadowvale’s half-acre site is believed to be the third official natural burial place in Canada.

Not all sites agree on what constitutes a natural burial. It’s up to each cemetery to make decisions about, for instance, what types of materials can be used to contain the body, said Cowan. Mount Pleasant Group took two years to draft its rules. Among them: a casket can be used, provided it’s made of biodegradable materials and not treated with varnish. Embalming can take place, so long as it’s not done with formaldehyde or other, non-biodegradable chemicals.

While cremation is frowned upon by some environmental groups — the process uses about 27 litres of natural gas per body, according to the Natural Burial Association — it will be allowed at Meadowvale, though the container is required to be biodegradable. What won’t be permitted are tombstones. The cemetery wants the plot to remain “pristine,” Cowan said, and other than narrow pathways down to grave locations, the natural grass and indigenous flowers they have planted will not be cut. Graves will be identified only with a small numbered marker in the grass. In place of tombstones, the cemetery has installed four granite obelisks where names can be inscribed.

It’s not known what type of demand there will be for the burial, Cowan said. Given its stripped down nature, you might assume the eco-friendly option is also the cheaper one, but that’s not the case. The price of natural and traditional interments is comparable, Cowan said, because the same work has to be done to prepare the plot.

“In some sense this is sticking our toe in the water to see whether or not there’s a segment of the population that truly would like to have this type of opportunity,” he said. If the demand turns out to be there, Mount Pleasant Group will dedicate more natural burial space at its other cemeteries, Cowan said.

Would you be interested in a natural burial?

Cemetery Etiquette


Hello, my name is gravetender and I’m a cemetery-holic. And I’m not the only one (phew!).  There are hundreds (thousands? hundreds of thousands?) people just like me all over the world who enjoy visiting cemeteries. And when we visit cemeteries we follow the rules of cemetery etiquette.

‘Cemetery Etiquette: How to Act When Graveyard Hopping’ is an article penned in the Graveyard Rabbit Online Journal. And just what exactly is a Graveyard Rabbit, you ask? Well, a Graveyard Rabbit is a member of the Association of Graveyard Rabbits and they are dedicated to the “academic promotion of the historical importance of cemeteries, grave markers, and the family history to be learned from a study of burial customs, burying grounds, and tombstones; and the social promotion of the study of cemeteries, the preservation of cemeteries, and the transcription of genealogical/historical information written in cemeteries.”

So back to the article (which you can read in full here) and the generally accepted rules of cemetery etiquette, which are:

  • Appreciate memorials as they are. Do not add to, take away from, or modify a memorial in any way.
  • Do not intrude on funeral or memorial services.
  • Do not bring alcohol, firearms, or entertainment items into cemeteries.
  • Keep pets leashed and under control. Clean up after them. [If the cemetery has an office, first check to make sure pets are welcome.]
  • Do not litter (this includes cigarette butts), and do not interfere with plants and wildlife.
  • Keep vehicles on designated roadways or in parking areas. Idling vehicle engines can be harmful to landscaping and historical structures.

And here are some more:

  • Move nothing except obvious trash.
  • No loud music. If in your vehicle, the music should not be heard by anyone outside of it.
  • Keep cell phone conversations quiet.
  • Do not do rubbings without permission. Each cemetery has a different stance on this. Some will allow it, some will not. Some will require permission from the lot owner. Always ask.
  • Drive through cemeteries at a slow speed.
  • If asked to put away your camera, do so. Some cemeteries are considered private property. Some consider each lot to be a private property.
  • Never trespass. If a cemetery is located on private property, get permission from the land owner before visiting.
  • Keep conversations with companions at a respectable volume. I don’t think a whisper is required, but shouting is obviously disrespectful and unnecessary.
  • Leave no evidence of your visit.
  • Report fresh vandalism incidents immediately.
  • Cemeteries are not to be used as a camping ground or “lovers’ lane.”
  • Picnics are usually acceptable, but be sure to leave the area cleaner than when you arrived. (I imagine this to be true in the many park-like cemeteries, but I would not assume this to be true at every cemetery.)
  • Do not pick flowers. Not even the ones that are part of the general cemetery landscape. This is against the law in some places.

These are good rules to follow. Do you have good cemetery etiquette?