How many times have you passed by a someone’s grave only to stop in pure admiration? Creativity never ends in death. While knowing all the reasons and stories behind each stone is impossible, the privilege is still ours in sight.
The 1800’s were surely a macabre time to live in. The notion of death held an ominous cloud over the heads of the upright and dour Victorian citizens. Because medicine was still in its infancy, folks naturally knew next to nothing about the human body. In fact, the discovery of the human body and a slew of creative, albeit radical methods of treatments such as lobotomies and herbal tonics highlighted the times. In those days, when loved ones died, there was a nagging thought that those once lively bodies harboured terrible diseases. Leaving unburied bodies surely meant whatever illnesses could freely inhabit a living person. Also, the colors of death began to change a the physical appearances both outwardly and internally thanks to the minimal use of embalming until later in the century. To ensure the safety of the town, bodies were quickly buried without so much as a blink of an eye.
No sooner did the good people rid themselves with possible illness then another problem arose. Old stories mention the unearthing of bodies in cemeteries for new graves when space ran out. But an unthinkable horror worse than disease surfaced. A handful of coffins bore scratch marks from the inside as if the dead somehow came back to life and wanted to rejoin the world above. Realistically, medicine and wrongful burials stayed in the premature category, so this happened more than often. Unfortunately, these poor souls suffocated in tight, dark spaces and some were never rescued.
Courtesy of Lauren Ayn Lusk
An illustration of the decease’s hands attached to the life saving contraption
Such is the case of Samuel Jocelyn, a privileged man from Wilmington, North Carolina who found himself entombed in frosty waters after making his way in the dark. Who says love doesn’t kill? It definitely was an end for Jocelyn after a heated fight with his darling new wife. Hastily buried, Jocelyn found himself a victim of a burial gone wrong after his friends dug him up only to find their fun loving pal in life a picture of writhing agony and a body in the most horrible contortion. When the searchers found Jocelyn’s body, it was assumed that he was dead on arrival. But the icy swamp only slowed his heart down enough so that the faint murmurs came close to inaudibility. Alas, the warmth of his new earthly home interrupted his slumber and his last breath drew in the underground abode.
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St. James Episcopal Church’s Cemetery
Perhaps the grim author, Edgar Allan Poe, sums up this pandemonium the best in his stories of violent deaths such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial”. His tales captivated the audience of that time but also instilled a fear and truth about early death and the limited knowledge on the topic.
An illustrated scene of “The Cask of Amontillado”
Edgar Allan Poe
It’s right to say that while the Victorians stared death on a regular basis due to illnesses and lack of medicine, their fear spurred ways to combat the issue. When it was discovered that the possibility of being buried alive was very real, a system of bells and strings were became the craze. Unlike today’s six feet under and steel vaults, the dead laid in shallow graves a few inches below with loose soil on top. Some historians say families resorted to leaving the bodies’ hands sticking out of the graves with a string attached to the finger or wrist, while others say the dead laid in dormancy underground. If the bell rang, then a night watchman or “dead ringer” came to the rescue with shovel in tow.
The invention of the “safety coffin” also led to the relief of folks in the latter part of the 19th century. The most known device comes from a man by the name of Count Michel de Karnice Karnicki which he aptly termed “Le Karnice”. Here, the body laid in a rectangular box above ground with a bell and a ball on the outside. If the person was still alive, then their movement and change in breath triggered the bell and ball to sound and move, respectively.
Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Center for History
On another note, most people regard Henry Ford as the first person to create shift work, but it’s rather a misconception. The third shift came to fruition as night watchmen meandered the premises of the graveyard in hopes of finding the living. The shift lasted from somewhere around late evening to midnight until the early morning. Thankfully, many were found. Some people dispute this tale because another origin of this term comes from sailors working in the dead of night. The eerie calm of night coupled with the imagination’s ability to run wild led to more than a few men quaking till the morning. The shift was a dangerous time because being on a boat in the middle of the night meant that a man could easily fall overboard due to the inability to see clearly at night as he continued his watch or being groggy from no sleep. Nowadays, plenty of people find the “graveyard shift” one of the most challenging things about work.
Another strange tradition stemming from fear of interment has to do with a certain drink. The English took to their ale quite heartily and that mixture coupled with leaden cups would make modern hangovers wilt in shame. The part about the lead is up in the air to historians and science as the maker of drunk men may not be in this element. Only prolonged exposure seems plausible. As the drunkards traverse the dimly lit roads, good samaritans would find them faced down on the ground. These civilians and family members dutifully collected the sloven forms and laid them out on the tables at home in funerary finery awaiting a proper burial. The family would gather round to eat and drink and of course be merry while watching the stranger in curiousity. More than likely, plenty a English man woke up from his stupor and did a little walk of shame home. Dispelling this tale, one can take in another. The roots of a Christian wake goes back to the influences of the Celtic people who would place the dead under a table while the watchers sipped their giddy beverages on the table or elsewhere. Either way, the term “wake” has its roots tied to alcohol.
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Nowadays, wakes consist of families and friends gathering in a church or another space of significance where eulogies are given in memory of the deceased and prayers are said. A modern form of a wake resembling the one in the old days can be seen in a romantic tragedy about unattainable love and heartbreak where a certain person believes his love is lost forever. No, it’s not Romeo and Juliet! Here’s a hint: it’s supernatural with vampires and werewolves at odds and in love. The Twilight Saga:Breaking Dawn — Part 1 depicts a scene where Bella Cullen’s family and friends wait for her to wake up from her morphine and venom induced siesta in the middle of the house. Families in the 1800’s and even later without parlors made do by using a bedroom. Bodies laid on beds or in coffins on top of the bed and people came for the viewing.
A commemorative inscription. Laud. Poem. A sign of brevity.
Epitaphs travel the length and breath of each moment only to seek immortalization in the indentation of a lithic element. Words carry meaning and instill the vitality a living person once held in ways voice can no longer gratify.
The Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina resembles any other cemetery in that it serves one purpose: honor the dead. Whether through burials or cremations, each interment allows families to grieve and remember past lives. To the last words and the impressions left behind…
“We May Lose And We May Win, But We Will Never Be Here Again. Take It Easy…”
“I am dying to get home and take you in my arms again. You had better watch out darling…”
These are the words that captivated me as I read through stacks of letters from World War II from a soldier to his honey waiting at home. There are so many stories about love in literature that makes the heart swoon like The Notebook, Casablanca and The English Patient. But the one that resonates with me the most is the one I heard this morning. I had the pleasure talking to Charlene Stell, a volunteer at Oakwood Cemetery, about her parents who are buried in the Veterans’ Section. Charles Vlaskamp passed away in 1999 while Dorothy Vlaskamp also passed in 2014. Her father was a frequent visitor to Oakwood and enjoyed learning about the history of the Civil War. Charles and Dorothy married on March 27, 1944 in New York. It was a sudden decision when Dorothy took a train from California to see her lover, not knowing if he was going to be there. Once there, she married in the dress she arrived in to her waiting soldier. Soon, Charles shipped out to the next station as the war continued.
What is most endearing is the story of how they met. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms in California and on a night out with friends, the group decided to dance at a United Services Organization Center. She happened to be there at the right time. No one wanted to dance with her more than he did and another fellow. Coins were flipped and the rest is history. However, love is never easy in war and complications ensued. Charles would not be home for a very long time and marriage was a distant photograph. But their love never faded as he sent out letters to her wherever he went from Holland to Paris to Germany to Louisiana to wherever as he followed General George S. Patton’s path. Their love was tried by the adversities in life such as Charles going through a divorce when they first met and the war separating them thousands of miles from each other. But the two found a way to make it work.
Theirs is a story that the 1940’s relished because Charles and Dorothy reunited after the war ended in 1945. Home to a new America, the two built a life together lasting over three decades. Although the two divorced later in life, both remained great friends as well as wonderful parents and grandparents. In his spare time, Charles enjoyed a game of golf, read voraciously and nourished his gift for playing piano by ear. Dorothy remained on the crafty side of things and loved oil painting, making porcelain dolls and gardening. Stell remembered how her mother kept all of her father’s letters in a box. The letters accompany many stunning pictures of the duo in their younger years and are now preserved in an photo album created by Charlene’s daughter, Jennifer Knight, depicting their love story. Along with this is an album created in remembrance of Dorothy as a wife, mother, and grandmother. As for Charlene, she spends her days dedicating hours at Oakwood helping many whose loved ones are interred here and passersby with a sense of curiosity. She has also donated a generous gift by giving all of her parents’ letters and photo albums to Oakwood Cemetery as a way to preserve their love, memories so that others may remember how they once lived.