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Cemeteries: A Place for Research and Mourning

This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Kaitlynn Anderson, Museum Curator

Female statue looking over a grave at the Moscow Cemetery. LCHS Photo ID: 01-07-030

Through a recent trip to Arlington National Cemetery, I had the opportunity to visit well-known gravesites, including the eternal flame of John F. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. However, none of those were the most intriguing stops for me. Once we made it to the top of the hill, we were met with a large two-story house that called back to Greek Revival architecture. This house, appropriately named the Arlington House, was previously lived in by Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis. Custis inherited the house in 1857, along with the 1,100-acre working plantation and enslaved people, from her father. After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Lee family vacated the house never to return, and in turn, the Union utilized the house and land for a headquarters. As the number of deceased soldiers grew during the Civil War, the Union used the plantation land to bury soldiers. Contrary to its original usage, the land also served as a haven for African Americans who were escaping slavery, thus forming the Freedman’s Village. After a legal dispute with Lee’s son in 1883, the government purchased the house and land to continue the Arlington Cemetery mission of burying fallen soldiers and their families.

After leaving the cemetery, it made me question the cemeteries within Latah County. How was the land obtained for the cemeteries? How many cemeteries are there? How are they managed and who is allowed to be buried in them? What can an individual learn about visiting a cemetery whether they have a loved one buried there or not? All these questions lead to an examination of how researchers can utilize cemeteries as a primary source and what they can tell us about the individual, the area, and the era.

Within Latah County, cemeteries can be found near churches, such as the Cordelia Lutheran Church and Cemetery, on a Palouse hilltop (American Ridge Cemetery), and hidden among the forest (Bovill Cemetery). Although all the cemeteries within the county provide a restful laying ground for the deceased, the histories behind each one is different. For example, the Genesee City Cemetery opened for individuals who did not want to be buried in either the religious cemeteries, which include St. John Lutheran Church Cemetery and the St. Mary Catholic Cemetery. Other cemeteries, such as the Buchanan Cemetery and Dry Creek Cemetery, were originally on land that was donated by pioneer families. Both cemeteries have pioneering families buried in them, however, only Dry Creek Cemetery still has burials taking place. Most of the cemeteries within the county are maintained by the local municipality maintenance district.

Not only can the origins of cemeteries provide an inkling of its history, but so can the layout of them. For several cemeteries with local pioneer beginnings there are new and old sections. This can be seen at the Moscow Cemetery where there are eight old sections and eight new sections. Within each section there is a dedicated section for Catholic burials. The separate sections make it easier to differentiate between burial dates, while varying cemetery layouts can also indicate racial segregation during the era. White communities believed there needed to be a separation in cemeteries as they wanted their loved ones to still hold dignity even in death. In Latah County, we know that there was an Asian American community, but were they allowed to be buried in community cemeteries without being segregated? Are their graves properly marked? Since there are not many examples of non-white burials in Latah County, we are uncertain of the answers to these questions. However, throughout the country, we see where minority communities oftentimes created their own cemeteries as a way of defiance, while still providing a place for mourning. Not only can the layout within a cemetery provide historical information, but the physical landscape of the cemetery can as well. Here in the Palouse where we are above sea level and do not need to worry about the water table, other geographical regions, such as the South, have to keep those aspects in mind. The reasoning is in case there are any natural disasters or high rain fall that would cause burials to resurface and potentially be lost in the water.

One of the most telling items in cemeteries for researchers include headstones. Differences are often seen through size, designs, iconography, and inscriptions. Headstone sizes can often indicate the social and economic class of an individual, as headstones can vary from a small nameplate to a standard-size headstone to a mausoleum. The concept of headstones as a status symbol also carries over to who gets a headstone in general. Historically, people of a lower economic class might not be able to afford a headstone, so instead their loved one may receive a wooden cross instead. Designs and inscriptions located on headstones also provide an indication of the individual’s life and what the family wanted to convey to the public, often with religious undertones. Even though headstones can serve as a useful source of information related to a specific individual, they are also issues related to them. Historically, married women were typically referred to by their husbands’ names (i.e., Mrs. William McConnell), which in turn is how their names were inscribed on their headstones. This speaks to the period but also makes it difficult to properly research the woman. Additionally, headstones can become broken due to natural causes or lawn maintenance. With that, there is the potential risk of headstones being removed and not being replaced with the proper grave. This again causes confusion for researchers and makes it difficult to ensure that the proper individual is being researched.

Cemeteries serve as the resting place for individuals, but the primary function of them is to provide a place of mourning for family and friends. Mourning practices can be traced back to the beginning of time and vary throughout the world in different cultures. Perhaps one the most intriguing mourning practices in Western culture can be found in the Victorian Era. The Victorians implemented a new structure of etiquette that made the period of mourning public rather than private, which created a funeral industry. Most visibly, widows wore mourning dresses up for a couple of years after their husband’s death, as well as jewelry made from their loved ones’ hair. The most prominent mourning dress that can be noted in history are those worn by Queen Victoria, who wore black the rest of her life after her husband Albert died. The hair was also used to create hair art, which a framed piece can be found in the McConnell Mansion, to serve to memorialize the individual. Another common mourning practice includes an array of photography. As funerals were typically held in the household, photographs would be taken of the individual in the casket. For those mourning, they would take photographs in their mourning clothes holding a photograph of the deceased. And perhaps the most peculiar by today’s standards, the deceased would be posed for the family to take photographs with them. A common way to tell if individuals were deceased in historic photographs is by their eyes, which were either closed to make the deceased appear asleep or propped open to appear healthy. This kind of photography was commonplace for children who passed at a young age and often was the only photograph that the family would have to remember them. Today, mourning practices are no longer publicized events. Although funerals and celebrations of life are held, they are often a private time for families to be together. At cemeteries, benches can be found for individuals to sit in peace and reminisce about their friends or family member. An interactive way for individuals to mourn and take home a reminder of their loved ones is through headstone etching. This practice is most common for children to engage with, and can be seen even at national memorials, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Once again, all these aspects are a reminder that cemeteries are spaces geared for the living as a place for mourning and reflection.

Creating a headstone etching at the Genesee Valley Lutheran Cemetery during an LCHS Heart and Soul Tour. LCHS Photo ID: 06-07-009

Even with the solemn atmosphere and mourning that occurs at cemeteries, there has been an uptick in cemeteries serving as a party location and pop culture sensationalizing the location. The idea of being among the dead can provide a sense of thrill and living on the edges, while also providing the ever clear reminder that death is inevitable and can happen at any moment. Even further, the concept of death has captured the current generation through true crime documentaries and podcasts. The fascination creates an opposing view and effect for cemetery visitors.

All these aspects of how cemeteries can be utilized as primary sources only touch the surface of the knowledge that can be gained from them. Healing and grieving at cemeteries come in all shapes and sizes and vary from person to person. For some individuals, visiting the cemetery for a loved one’s birthday can provide healing, but for some, visiting to conduct genealogical research can provide a sense of bonding with an ancestor. You can also visit the LCHS office for records of some cemeteries throughout the county and utilize and Ancestry if you are interested in locating your ancestors within the county.

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