Sunday, December 21, 2008

From China: Fewer People Visit Ancestors' Graves This Year

Apparently it is a Chinese tradition to visit ones' ancestors' graves at the Winter Solstice festival. But the Shanghai Daily's English language online edition reports today (actually it's tomorrow there already) that the numbers of people gathering in cemeteries this year was down slightly from last year. The Daily said that officials attribute the drop (overall about 2% in the Shanghai area) to bad weather as well as suggestions not to visit during peak periods.

The Daily reported that one cemetery, the Binhaiguyuan Cemetery, received just 91,000 visitors yesterday (today here on the U.S. West Coast), which represented a drop of 20% from last year. The Daily said that some families arrived at cemeteries as early as 3:30 a.m. to avoid crowds and traffic.

Chinese visit their ancestors' graves traditionally at the winter solstice and at the Qingming Festival in early April.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grace Hill Cemetery, Longview, Texas

My visit to Grace Hill Cemetery in May, 2004, may have been the inspiration to blog about genealogy and related topics.

I had flown into Shreveport, Louisiana, on a business trip and decided to take a couple more days for genealogy research in the region. I drove about an hour west on I-20 to get to Longview, ancestral home of many in my Bowie line.

I got to Grace Hill Cemetery rather late in the day. I knew it was likely that many of my Bowie relatives were buried there, but at that point I had just one death certificate. It was for my great-great-grandmother, Amanda McCray Bowie.

Grace Hill Cemetery is near the intersection of U.S. Highway 80 (West Marshall Avenue), a major thoroughfare, and McCann Road in Longview.

I got to the cemetery at almost 5:00 p.m. due to circumstances beyond my control. It would be about closing time. I went to the caretaker's office (well, shack, really) and told a man there whose grave I was looking for. Like many cemeteries I have visited, the information age had yet to arrive here and the grave locations were kept on index cards in a small box. The man asked me if I knew Clarence Bowie. I said I knew of him, but didn't know him personally. Then the man said, "How do you know him?"

"Well, he's my cousin!" I told him. "Come on, cuz, let's go find Amanda's grave!" he replied.

We walked toward the eastern portion of the graveyard past a line of trees, and soon came to a row of mostly broken monuments. "There it is," he said pointing. Amanda Bowie's headstone is the largest monument in that row and it rested in the late afternoon shade of the trees. Next to it is the nearly as large headstone of Iba Bowie, one of the daughters of Amanda and John Wesley Bowie. Most of the other headstones were too broken or corroded to read, but the caretaker said that they were all likely Bowie family members in that row.

"Time was," he said,"that black people weren't allowed in this cemetery. Then they (the city) put up a fence and created a colored section. But after that the courts made 'em take down the fence so it would be one integrated cemetery."

"Where was the fence?" I asked naively. "You see this row of trees?" the caretaker asked. We were practically standing under them. "That's where the fence was." And indeed, I could tell that the trees formed a barrier of sorts between two sections of the cemetery. You could pass through this barrier, but it was still a barrier.

As I contemplated the two headstones, I was struck by how large they are. It must have cost the family s small fortune to afford them in the early twentieth century. How did they afford it? Why were Amanda and Iba seemingly singled out for special treatment? The caretaker didn't know the answers to those questions. He had not thought of them in any event.

Barrier tree line visible just behind grave of Iba Bowie.

This was not a rich family. Of the male Bowies I could find buried there, almost all were described as "laborers." The women either stayed at home or were cooks or other sorts of domestic servants. So how did they afford such elaborate monuments? The men's headstones were of the flat sort in the ground and were in terrible condition.

Perhaps the women were almost literally "put on a pedestal," explaining why their monuments are larger and generally better than the men's.

I wonder if this disparate treatment between the men and women relating to gravestones was just a Bowie family thing, or was it a Texas thing?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Graveyard or Landfill?

When a rock and dirt recycling company in Clayton County, Georgia, wanted to expand its operations, the company came across a 311-grave African-American cemetery in the way. What to do?

A situation like this can be grief for all concerned. The families whose loved ones' remains lie in the cemetery are the most obviously affected. But the company, too, acting in good faith is also affected. And the public is affected as well.

In this case, the county commission, acting under Georgia law, has granted a permit to an archeologist to move the graves to a nearby cemetery. The original graveyard had become virtually inaccessible due to development all around it, including Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

This, however, is not an isolated incident. Every year, more historic graveyards are moved or built over. The diligence to prevent this is in the first instance on families and historians. Each state has laws governing the operation of cemeteries. Genealogists and historians would be well-advised to become generally familiar with such laws.

Here at The PGR, we'll from time to time present some of these laws. And we'll have more this week about the Georgia controversy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A New Rabbit: Santa Fe's African American Graveyard Rabbit

This new blog by the estimable George Geder can be found at

George poses this interesting question: "How many African Americans are buried in Santa Fe, New Mexico? Who are they? What are their stories?"

His answers no doubt will fascinate and educate us. Check it out!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Pyrrhic Monument at Meuse-Argonne

Just east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (Meuse), France, more than 14,000 Americans lie in repose. The place is Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It is the largest American cemetery in France, covering more than 130 acres. It is also one of the largest monuments to the uselessness of World War I.

Most of the 14,000 or so souls here were killed in a single 47-day long slaughter known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive or the Battle of the Argonne Forest. Nearly 1.2 million (yes, that's right) U.S. soldiers took part in this now-obscure battle and more than 26,000 of them were killed. The battle, America's bloodiest, took place between September 26 and November 11, 1918. That a battle that took so many lives could be so little recalled is a shame.

As a result of the obscurity of this battle, the last Allied offensive of World War I, Meuse-Argonne Cemetery has few American visitors these days. And, after all, it has been ninety years since.

Perhaps the sheer beauty of the place somehow will compensate for the lack of visitors. (If a cemetery is built up in the middle of a forest, but nobody sees it . . . ?)

The cemetery and memorial were designed by the New York architectural firm of York & Sawyer. This internationally renowned firm also is credited with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; the headquarters of the Brooklyn Trust Company (now part of JP Morgan Chase); the Law Quadrangle at the University of Michigan; and the Old Royal Bank Building in Montreal. The firm's other cemetery work includes Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

On this 90th anniversary of the "War to End All Wars," let us take a moment to go through Meuse-Argonne Cemetery and recall those who lie here forever.

Click here for our virtual trip to Meuse-Argonne.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What the Other Rabbits Are Up To

If you're interested in a concise digest of the 90 or so articles published last week by members of the Association of Graveyard Rabbits around the world, go to the Association's blog to see This Week With The Graveyard Rabbits. Founder Terry Thornton has done the heavy lifting; thanks, Terry! With so many articles, almost everyone will find something of interest.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Colma, California: Dying to Go There

Colma, a town in San Mateo County, California, just a few miles south of San Francisco, takes pride in the fact that it's mostly dead. And yet, folks are still dying to go there! That's right; it's no insult here to comment that the place seems to have little life about it.

Colma, you see, is a necropolis: almost 75% of the land in the town consists of cemeteries. There are more dead people in Colma than the 1,300 living ones.

Colma became a burial ground when San Francisco began to run out of land for just about anything, let alone cemeteries. By 1900, San Francisco faced potential health hazards from its lack of burial space. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors prohibited any more burials in the city. Within a dozen years, Colma, conveniently located on a rail line from downtown San Francisco, had a dozen cemeteries.

Then San Francisco took a more drastic step: all existing cemeteries were evicted from the city and thousands of bodies had to be removed. Colma was the place to take them.

Colma now has 17 cemeteries for humans and one for pets. Nearly everyone who dies in San Francisco is buried in Colma.

Satellite view of a part of Colma, California, with Holy Cross cemetery as focal point
(click to enlarge image)

From Google Maps

The town does have enterprises other than graveyards. There is an auto mall and two large shopping centers.

Many of Colma's cemeteries have monuments of historical significance and many famous folks are buried there. Among the celebrity dead in Colma are Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and William Randolph Hearst.

The oldest and largest cemetery in Colma is Holy Cross Cemetery, owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. It opened in 1887, long before San Francisco forced other cemeteries out of town.

The one pet cemetery, Pet's Rest, opened in 1947. Earl Taylor, a worker at Colma's Cypress Lawn cemetery, started Pet's Rest after hearing numerous people ask to bury pets with their loved ones in the other cemeteries.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The National Cemeteries

Adapted from a post that originally appeared at GeneaBlogie on May 26, 2008

Like many folks, The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit has many relatives buried in national cemeteries. A few months ago, someone asked The PGR about the history of the national cemeteries.

In 1864, Congress passed a bill that authorized the President to acquire lands for national cemeteries. The Government established fourteen national cemeteries in the first year of authorization. In 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs opened the 141st national cemetery, the South Florida National Cemetery at Lake Worth, Florida.

The 141 national cemeteries have more than 3 million graves, with the potential to grow to 5 million. This is important because today there are more than 24 million veterans eligible for burial in national cemeteries. VA says that historically about 12% of veterans choose a national cemetery.
Left: The nation's busiest National Cemetery at Calverton, New York

The term "national cemetery" refers to lands under the jurisdiction of three different departments. Most (125) of the national cemeteries are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration. Fourteen are operated by the Department of the Interior's National Park Service. These are cemeteries that are associated with national historic battlefield sites like Gettysburg, with one exception being the national cemetery at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Tennessee. Except for the Andrew Johnson cemetery and the national cemetery at Andersonville, Georgia, all of the National Park Service-run cemeteries are closed to new burials.

Two of the national cemeteries are controlled by the Department of Defense through the Army. These are Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps the most well-known and most visited of the national cemeteries, and the cemetery at the Armed Forces Retirement Home (formerly the Soldiers and Sailors Home) in Washington, D.C.

A view of the National Cemetery maintained by the National Park Service at Andersonville, Georgia

In honoring our fallen troops, we should not forget that some are interred overseas. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 cemeteries in foreign countries which contain the graves of 125,000 Americans.

Genealogy Research Tip: The VA National Cemetery Administration has a nationwide grave locator to find graves of veterans. This contains the names of almost all the veterans buried in VA and National Park Service national cemeteries. In addition, it also has the names of veterans buried in non-government cemeteries for graves marked with a VA-provided marker. One thing not to overlook is that spouses, minor children, and unmarried disabled adult children of eligible veterans can also be interred in national cemeteries, even before the death of the veteran. (I reference, for example, the heart-breaking case of my cousin-by-marriage who has had the misfortune of having outlived two wives, both of whom lie waiting for him in repose at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St Louis). The Park Service is planning to put Civil War veterans grave locations in its excellent Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database. The American Battle Monuments Commission also has a searchable database.

If there is a national cemetery in your area, please pay a visit one day soon to give your respects to those who have given service to the nation.

Right: The American Battle Monuments Commission's American Cemetery and Memorial at Ardennes, Belgium, contains graves of 5,329 U.S. military dead.

Photo Credits: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration; U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service; American Battle Monuments Commission (an agency of the U.S. Government).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Uncle Monroe's Messy Memorial

Originally Published in GeneaBlogie, July 16, 2006

I was surprised to learn two summers ago that my father's great uncle Monroe Bryant (September 8, 1900 -- December 3, 1953) is buried in Sacramento, just about 5 miles away from the Bloggcast Center. He was buried on December 17, 1953, in East Lawn Memorial Park in the well-to-do neighborhood of East Sacramento. East Lawn is Sacramento's oldest and most "prestigious" cemetery. Many members of "old money" families are buried there.

Monroe Bryant was 53 years old when he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He had been born in Rockport, Texas, and had spent a great portion of his life wandering the country. Apparently, he left most places just one step ahead of the sheriff.

Since it was so close I decided to visit Monroe Bryant's grave. It was 104° outside, but East Lawn's self-description sounded perfect:
Described as a "peaceful oasis in the heart of the city", East Lawn Memorial Park offers over 40 acres of serenity and solitude away from the hectic city pace, just minutes from the freeway. Lush greenery, mature trees (many hundreds of years old) and timeless architectuure define the beauty of the park, which has become a community landmark for those in the area.

However, as can be seen, Monroe Bryant didn't get the true East Lawn experience. This was a shocking and disappointing moment for me. On the other hand I'm not sure what I expected: Monroe Bryant was an alcoholic drifter.
Monroe Bryant's unmarked grave in Sacramento, California.

It is saddening, however, to find a relative's final resting place in such unsatisfactory condition. This grave is located in section S, Row 14, plot 82. It's in the "non-endovved" area of the cemetery. Apparently, there are plans to upgrade this section. In the meantime, however, I'll be working on getting marker for Monroe Bryant's grave.

The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit

Welcome! The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit is a GeneaBlogie web publication and published in cooperation with The Association of Graveyard Rabbits. The irrepressible Terry Thornton, publisher of The Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi, and the indefatigable footnoteMaven (publisher of The footnoteMaven and Shades of the Departed as well as several others) founded the Association and it's grown by leaps and bounds in a matter of weeks. The Association is an organization of bloggers writing exclusively about graveyards, memorial markers, and the like.

Many of the Graveyard Rabbits focus on specific regions of the country. The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit will bring you information about cemeteries from all around the country (and even overseas). There will also be the occasional article about the law relevant to cemeteries and burial grounds.

We'll be here several times a month and we hope you'll join us as well as the other Rabbits for a close look at matters of grave concern.