Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cemetery Walks - A Unique Way To Present Local History

Imagine walking through a cemetery and seeing people - real live-looking people - standing near a tombstone. That's not so weird, is it?
But, as you walk up to them you notice that they are dressed differently...kind of like the way people used to dress in the old days; there are men in frock coats, women in hoop skirts, others looking like they're from the 1940's while others still look like they're from the 1890's.
That's not so normal...

"Good day!" one says to you, "what a fine day to be in the cemetery. I do not receive many visitors here!"
Okay, something strange is occurring.
The 'person' continues speaking.
"People walk past me quite often without giving me nary a thought - they see my name and the dates of my birth and death carved into my gravestone and walk right on by, so it's good to have an actual visitor who is interested in my life!"
Now this is very weird!
But fear not - - - you have not stepped into the twilight zone, but, instead, you've stumbled into a cemetery walk - yes, I said cemetery walk - and the stranger is not the dead coming back to life; he is only pretending to be!

What? You've never heard of one?
A cemetery walk is where people "become" the person buried 'neath the tombstone and tell of their life story. It's a biographical history lesson of the every day people who once were part of the local townsfolk decades, or in many cases, centuries earlier. 
This type of history lesson is a unique and, maybe to some, unconventional way of teaching about local history. But, at least here in the metro-Detroit area, they are becoming more and more popular, especially around the time of Hallowe'en.
For instance, this year at the old Riverside Cemetery in Plymouth, Michigan I portrayed Orson Polley, a man who was a blacksmith that was born in 1827 and died in 1903. His personal tombstone only says

1827 - 1903

But, with me portraying him as if I were the man come back to life, I was able to fill in the gap, or should I say dash, between those two dates. A sort of quick biography. 
There were, I believe, eight 'deceased characters' at Riverside this year portraying the citizens of Plymouth who were no longer with us. 

Besides Plymouth, I've also taken part in walks in the suburban metro-Detroit cities of Eastpointe and Clinton Township over the years. Perhaps my favorite took place back in 2010 when my daughter, who was 9 years old at the time, accompanied me in presenting a father and daughter of a hundred years previous.
Here's my real-life daughter and I
 portraying a deceased
father and daughter
back in 2010
It was at the Clinton Grove Cemetery located in Clinton Township. One of five stops along the tour, we portrayed father and daughter Adolph and Mildred Gutschow and, because most have never seen or heard of a child portraying a deceased child at a cemetery walk before, we were quite the hit! People were very touched to watch and listen to my daughter as Mildred stand by 'her' tombstone and become the young girl who died in 1910 at the age of 11 of a stomach ailment.  
I then would state to the tour groups that I hoped that no one in my presence had ever had to bare such a loss and tried to explain to them (not from experience, thank God) just how heartbreaking it was for a parent to lose a child. After one of our 17 (!) presentations had ended, one elderly woman came up to me, grabbed my hand, and shakily said, "I just wanted to tell you that I have lost a child and you are so right that it's the hardest thing for a parent to go through. You and your daughter did a wonderful job showing that. You helped to give me closure. Thank you." 
It nearly brought me to tears.
But, it wasn't all sad...we tried to have a little lightness as well, like when 'Mildred' spoke of her annoying brothers, or when one time early on my daughter forgot one of her lines. After a brief moment in thought, she - as Mildred - told the group, “Hey! I’ve been lying in this cemetery for a long time! I'm allowed to forget!” 
The people roared!
Now, as you can probably guess, aside from taking place in a cemetery, there is nothing spooky about our presentations (unless you do as we did and had a little scary fun with the camera, as you will soon see); as living representations of the deceased we actually attempt to give respect to the dead during our presentations and not pull out the blood, rot, and gore associated with it.
It also helps people overcome their fears of cemeteries...unless you walk alone in them in the dark - - oooo!
Kristen, forever in mourning

And, yes, I did just that. You see, after the last tour group came through on the most recent walk I participated in - I was third out of the eight stops so there were five more "spirits" the people were to visit after me - I decided to put my accessories (my table, chair, and candle lantern) in my van. The van was parked quite a ways away...down the center cemetery road and a bit around the corner. And it was dark - no streetlights at all. I had already blown out the candle in my lantern so the heated glass would be cooled down by the time I put it in the van, so it really was a pretty murky 'stroll.'

A little creepy...
Walking in the dark...by myself...in the cemetery...was very creepy.
Seriously creepy. 
I could only see the dim outlines of the tombstones. And, with this being late October, I heard all kinds of sounds such as leaves falling and rustling in the wind, twigs also falling, and probably critters scurrying about. Normally, sounds such as this I wouldn't pay any attention to, but I did this night.
No, I didn't experience anything strange, but, *for some reason* every graveyard scene from every scary movie I've ever watched came to my mind at the same time.
Yeah...definitely creepy, whether you believe in ghosts or not...I'm sure the most ardent skeptic would have had at least a few hairs on the back of his or her neck raised in that same situation.

Presenting history has changed over the years, but in this case change can be a good thing. As long as it's done in a respectful and truthful manner, I welcome it, for it's how we can enlighten those who may find the subject boring.
I also feel that cemetery walks in particular can help alleviate the fear that many people may have of graveyards.
Except, maybe, at night. By yourself.
"Out of the graveyard comes a ghost..."
(By the way, many thanks to fellow 'spirits' Mike Gillett and Kristen Mrozek for allowing me to use their pictures. Because of inclement weather I chose not to bring my camera along. It's a rarity for me, I know, but we did have a pretty gushing downpour of rain with strong winds right in the middle of the whole thing, so I suppose it wasn't such a bad decision after all.
Thanks again Mike and Kris!)
Say "hi" to Kristen



Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Hi Ken,
I enjoyed your cemetery walk, I have never been on one. I don't think any of the historical societies do that around here. If so, I have totally missed it.
I love old cemeteries, I don't find them spooky (at least not in the daytime!) I find them so interesting and beautiful. The old stones and iron fencing always catch my attention.
Thanks for sharing your walk with us and have a great Hallowe'en.

Ruth Torrijos said...

Oh too funny! lol Looks like fun! I'd like to do something like that... I don't believe in ghosts, but I would be jumpy, too!

Have a great year!

Stephanie Ann said...

This sounds very neat. I haven't heard of this before. I've seen cemetery tours that talk about the people in the cemeteries and I've been to candlelight interpreter tours but I never really thought of those things put together.

How fun! Everyone looks great in your photos.

Daibhre said...

We've done our Cemetery Tour in Ionia now three years in a row, and it's been a big hit, and loads of historical fun. Sort of "living history with the dead," I guess. We get lots of local folks with relatives being re-enacted on the tour, and sometimes with fascinating family stories "unfound" during our research. And, as we always point out, "Every headstone has a fascinating story beneath it."