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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 04:14 pm

Resting places

Cemeteries are islands of tranquility to reconnect with nature and the past

The Confederate dead at Camp Butler have pointed tombstones.
Untitled Document When the air turns cooler, the leaves change colors, and the rhythm of life settles into that steady pace that’s found only between the start of school and the frenzy of the holidays, it’s the perfect time to gather up your significant others, pack a lunch, and go find a shady spot where you can enjoy the fall foliage and read a little historical nonfiction.
Yep, we’re talking about a cemetery picnic.
It’s not as morbid as it sounds. In fact, graveyard noshing was quite popular during the Victorian era. During the early heyday of the rural-cemetery movement, around 1830 to 1850 — when the concept of locating cemeteries in natural, scenic settings on the outskirts of town, rather than in the city center, became popular — families were encouraged to spend Sunday afternoons at the necropolis, either dining with their dead or simply picnicking on their prepaid plots. Jon Austin, executive director of Springfield’s Museum of Funeral Customs, remembers his grandfather, who grew up in Peoria, reminiscing about riding a streetcar to a cemetery for family picnics. “It was not only a parklike atmosphere but an opportunity for the living to reconnect with loved ones,” Austin says. The idea has been resurrected around the country at historic cemeteries where trustees, trying to finance restoration projects, have come up with festive fundraisers that people are just dying to attend. A recent New York Times article chronicled a half-dozen boneyards hosting big benefits — a daffodil brunch at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, N.Y.; birdwatching lectures at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.; a fancy banquet at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia; jazz concerts at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif.; and a marching band and a parade of dogs dressed in historical costumes at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In Springfield, you’ll probably need to make your own private brunch or birding expedition, but there are plenty places to choose from. According to, there are 24 cemeteries in a 10-mile radius of Springfield, ranging from the large and legendary to the tiny and remote. Each has an intrinsic and intimate allure, giving visitors just a glimpse into the lives of the graveyard’s inhabitants. Take, for example, Alvin Taylor, whose headstone appears to be topped by the bare foot of a statue that toppled long ago. Taylor died a week shy of his 30th birthday, far from home, in Resaca, Ga., undoubtedly as a result of wounds sustained in the first major battle of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War campaign.
Catherine Newcomer’s headstone is a bathtub-size pink-granite monument of motherhood’s heartbreak: It lists the five daughters she bore — Nancy, Izora, Minnie, “Infant Dau.,” and “Baby Dau.” — none of whom lived to see a third birthday. Taylor and Newcomer are both buried in family cemeteries — Taylor in the Taylor Cemetery, outside Riverton, and Newcomer in the Newcomer Cemetery, at Lincoln Memorial Garden. The Newcomer family and the Shoup family (buried in the same cemetery) donated the land that now makes up the Lincoln Memorial Garden. The Taylor Cemetery, off Illinois Route 54, dates back at least to 1845 and is still active, with graves as fresh as 2006. Though small, with only about 100 graves, it introduces a visitor to a variety of monument styles, including two fascinating “treestones” — limestone carved to resemble a tree, with flowering vines and other symbols added artfully to the trunk. According to a respected cemetery field guide — Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister — this style was popular for about 25 years, beginning in the 1880s. The fact that these elaborate tributes could be ordered from the Sears & Roebuck catalog made them even more popular in the Midwest.
Springfield’s city burial ground, Oak Ridge Cemetery, offers 365 acres of shrines ranging from flats to traditional uprights to mausoleums. Sandy Rose, who has worked at Oak Ridge more than 20 years, says that the Abbey, a mausoleum built of white Italian marble, is one of her favorite spots to visit. Another is the nicely patinaed bronze marker emblazoned with the name Drawbridge.
“I love the whole cemetery,” Rose says. “It’s like a little park with a lot of vibes.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Camp Butler National Cemetery, full of uniform headstones, uniformly spaced, uniformly engraved, as befits soldiers. Claude Rivers, the director, says that each marker weighs 240 pounds, with the first foot-and-a-half sunk into the ground and 24 to 26 inches standing perfectly straight above. Each marker is cleaned annually with a bleach compound.
“They’re all standing at attention, in dress-white dress,” Rivers says. Still, these stones are not without personality. For example, the stones of Confederate prisoners of war are pointed rather than flat or round on top. “They did that so the Yankees wouldn’t sit on them,” Rivers says.
Area cemeteries have different rules for visitors. Camp Butler, for example, does not allow picnics or pets; Oak Ridge does, but pets must be on a leash. In all cases, be mindful that these are not public parks.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at