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


Perpetual Care Isn’t What You Think It Is

A lot of cemeteries offer perpetual care (sometimes known as endowed or permanent care) – in fact, some state regulations require it. However, the idea of perpetual care is often misunderstood and it’s important to know what is and is not covered when you purchase your lot. Or niche. Or crypt. Or mausoleum. There’ll be something to suit your needs no matter what you’re interested in!

Simply put, perpetual care funds are used for general maintenance and repair of cemetery grounds. For example, mowing and lawn care during the growing season would fall under perpetual care, as would upkeep of roads, paths and signage. Some cemeteries may use funds to repair fallen headstones or raise sunken grave markers but this is not common practice. The family is responsible for the headstone and for keeping the gravesite clean and neat. The family is also responsible for brightening up the lot (or niche, crypt, and mausoleum) with fresh/artificial flowers every so often. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see your decorations on the next visit though, since cemetery management has the right to remove said decorations if they are an impediment to their maintenance routine or don’t add to the overall attractiveness of the grounds (you know who you are…).

When I describe my services, a lot of people tell me that they have perpetual care and I always explain that perpetual care isn’t what they think it is. Maybe a picture can help illustrate this point. We cleaned the gravesite of a client’s loved one last summer a few days after the weekly mowing. This is what the grave marker looked like before:


So the cemetery staff definitely mowed the grounds. Then the wind promptly blew the grass clippings all over the grave marker. After we applied some TLC though, the grave marker looked like this:


See what a difference some good old-fashioned cleaning can do? So while I agree most perpetual care cemeteries are beautifully maintained, I tell my customers that if they look closely, they’ll get a different view. I suppose some care is better than none. I just think a gravetender’s care is better than most.

Why Tending Graves Is Important

Picture of elmwood cemetery entrance

Entrance to Elmwood Cemetery

This story reported in a Memphis paper called The Commercial Appeal is inspiring and it makes me proud to be a gravetender.

The story reports:

“Last week, a flat, four-sided headstone was all that marked the graves of the “Memphis Martyrs,” a quartet of Episcopalian Sisters known for their uncompromising care of yellow fever victims during the height of an epidemic here in the mid-1870s. 

Elmwood Cemetery volunteer Mark Henderson unearthed a cross-shaped pattern of white limestone slabs 51/2  feet long last week while tending to the grounds. They surround Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances, who were buried head-to-head  after succumbing to the disease only weeks apart in 1878.

Henderson, a Memphis police officer and parishioner at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, said the limestone around the sisters’ graves had sunk 8 inches over more than 100 years. He dug for two days and reassembled on the third.

“I had to figure it out like a puzzle,” said Henderson, 49. “But it all seems to fit.”

Henderson, a bagpipe player  who frequently serenades Elmwood visitors, took courses in grave tending in Knoxville and has started his own grave-care services company. He cleaned and repaired the limestone and placed black mulch underneath to make the cross pop. 

“Mark has made this place more beautiful with his work,” said Kimberly McCollum, executive director at Elmwood.” 

Thanks to Mark Henderson’s work, the story of the sisters’ sacrifice is no longer forgotten. This is why tending graves and maintaining cemeteries is important – there is so much history in local cemeteries that it’s a shame so many graveyards fall into ruin and disrepair. Let us not lose this vital link to our past and to our ancestors.

When was the last time you went to a cemetery?

Ash Scattering 101

We humans are a creative bunch. We have all kinds of ideas about all sorts of things. And we usually try to sell those ideas to each other on a daily basis. Just think of all the ads you see or hear from people trying to sell you a new! different! buy now while stocks last! widget on a daily basis. Hey, even this blog is trying to sell you something (please – buy now while stocks last!).

Some ideas are more creative than others. For those who are in the market for scattering ashes – as in the ashes of your cremated loved one or pet – look no further:

Ash Scattering Via Skydive – from the Blue Sky Goodbye website:

We truly believe that no greater freedom exists than the feeling of free falling though the sky. The wind in your hair, the sun warming your face, and a view so majestic, it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Away from the constraints of all things human, it is there that you become one with the Earth. Saying a final goodbye to a loved one and having their ashes dispersed via sky dive is the ultimate in setting them free.’

Creative, no? Not only is this service free (they accept donations), it’s legal (in Arizona) and you get a nifty tribute video as a memorial keepsake.

Photo Source:

Ashes For Fishes – just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t save the environment. Eternal Reefs puts your ashes to good use helping the marine eco-system. Here’s what they do:

‘Eternal Reefs takes the cremated remains or “cremains” of an individual and incorporates them into an environmentally safe cement mixture designed to create artificial reef formations. The memorial reefs are taken to a curing area and then placed in the permitted ocean location selected by the individual, friend or family member.’

If you love the ocean, this could be the perfect final resting place. You’ll have to dig deep in your pockets though – a memorial reef for you and your spouse/partner/whomever costs about $5,000. So, a little pricey but still creative. And environmentally friendly.

Photo Source:

Theme Park Ashes – Back in 2007, one person allegedly tried to scatter the ashes of their loved one in the popular ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride in Disneyland, CA. The LA Times reported the following:

A witness described the substance as a baby powder that quickly dissipated,” Disneyland resort spokesman Rob Doughty said. “We reopened the attraction after determining that there was no hazard to our guests.” Disney officials said they were unaware of any confirmed ash-scattering incidents in the park, and they didn’t believe it to be a problem. From time to time, guests do ask permission to disperse ashes on park premises. “The answer, Doughty said, is always no.”

I guess some people really love those rides. Creative, yes. Legal, not so much.


Photo image via Wikipedia


As cremation continues to grow in popularity (and put gravetenders like me out of business – buy now while stocks last!) the list of interesting and creative places to scatter ashes will only get longer. I wonder what people will come up with next?

Where would you want your ashes scattered?

Gravetender At The Movies: ‘Contagion’


When I’m not tending graves, I enjoy watching movies. It’s become a bit of an expensive hobby in these recessionary times though, and there aren’t too many options out there that accomodate a tight budget:

  1. Movie theater: Just the movie – about $10. Movie with popcorn and soda – about $20 (and this is only for one person!)
  2. Cable: average cost for new movie releases – around $5 – $8.
  3. Netflix: about $8 (add an extra $5 for stress-related costs if you have the streaming option and your internet connection isn’t as fast as it should be).
  4. Redbox: $1 a movie a night. But you have to wait 3 months to see new stuff.
  5. Hulu: I really don’t know anything about this – I think it’s free? But you still need an internet connection (see #3).
  6. All the other movie watching options that I’m not aware of (hey, I can’t keep up with everything. I’m only human).

Anyway, I shelled out the requisite $10 to watch ‘Contagion’ last night. Now, I’m not necessarily germ-phobic but when I left the theater I did not want to touch anything or anyone. Including Gravetender Hubby, Gravetender Baby and Gravetender Car Door Handle! ‘Contagion’ did a great job of emphasizing the fact that germs are everywhere. Ick.

The movie has a fairly large cast of stars, as in the kind of stars you’ve probably heard of before – Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne. The director is Steven Soderbergh (of the ‘Erin Brockovich’ and’ Ocean’s Eleven’, ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ & ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ fame). Based on those credentials one would expect a pretty good movie and one would not be disappointed. The main storyline of the film involves the rapid spread of a deadly disease across the globe which causes an upheaval in the lives of the main characters and in society as a whole. There is a quick descent into all-out crazy behaviour as the authorities desperately search for a cure. Although a bit slow at times, the movie is a thriller in that it effectively shows just how vulnerable we are to an unknown virus with a mission. I think this line from one of the characters, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), says it best:

“The average person touches their face 3-5 times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains, and each other.”

Enough said. Bring on the hand sanitizer.

Get Your Own Windmill

Some people have no cemetery etiquette.

I visited Lake Charles Cemetery late one afternoon, looking for a grave (no, I’m not a weirdo – I just tend graves for a living). My client had drawn a map with directions – really, it was just a few lines on paper with an ‘X’ marks the spot – and she claimed the grave would be easy to find. Well, it took me about 20 minutes to find it (so much for ‘X’ marks the spot maps) and as I traipsed around the cemetery, wondering if I was on ‘Mission:Impossible,’ I came across an older gentleman trimming the grass at a gravesite.

Not wanting to interrupt I walked past him and nodded hello. But he stopped me and we spoke for a few minutes. I told him about my trouble with the map and he told me he was cleaning his wife’s grave.

“I come here every day,” he said.

“Every day?” I said.

He told me that he likes to keep his wife’s grave neat and clean. She had been sick for a long time and had prayed for death to come take her. He thought he would go first but he’s glad she’s no longer in pain, although he misses her a lot. Her name was Betty. He used to visit her every few days and leave flowers and decorations, but one day he noticed that someone had taken one of the windmills he’d put on the grave. He found the windmill on another grave, just a few feet from Betty.

“Can you believe someone would steal my windmill?” he said.

I shook my head.

“I took my windmill back. And now I come everyday to make sure Betty’s alright.”

Some people have no cemetery etiquette. Stealing a windmill off someone else’s grave?? That’s low.

What’s on your list of bad cemetery etiquette?