Earthly remains

Of all the things we leave behind when our time is done, the most important, of course, is ourselves, the least and the most of our lives. While cultures vary in the veneration of ancestors, my staunch Puritan ancestors held to the rites of our New England traditions.

Yet one of the most fascinating yet unsettling museums I’ve experienced is the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato,[1] the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. And what better time to visit that museum than on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead? We walked with local families up the hill to the cemetery next to the museum where it is customary to picnic, decorate the family grave site, and pay homage to one’s ancestors. The museum next to it is a presentation and explanation of the incorporation of the Mexican view of death in culture and society shown through an extensive display of mummies of cholera victims of the mid-1800s.

Genealogical identification of such mummies is by definition difficult, if not impossible. While the various mummies on display were indeed fascinating for their preservation, I was not prepared for the photo display as I entered. The walls were lined with black and white photos of grieving parents holding their recently-deceased children, photos taken in the late 1800s, presumably to comfort parents with a last view of their child. Whether these long-dead families have ever been identified I do not know.

Such photos are not exactly New England Puritan practice, however much the Victorians indulged in “memento mori” of sometimes gruesome photographs, hair jewelry, hair wreaths, and funeral jewelry. My family’s “memento mori” has consisted of a few coffin plates, the occasional lock of hair pressed in a Bible, and a hair wreath framed in a shadow box. I am quite content that my ancestors preferred to remember their loved ones as they looked in life, not in death.

The experience left me grateful that my ancestors were not cholera victims buried hurriedly in a local mass grave, but rest quietly in their coffins – mummies or ashes as they may be – a few hundred yards from My Old House, where I can walk among their gravestones, read their epitaphs, plant a few flowers, and understand that I will never be closer to them than in that place.

Cemeteries are interesting, inviting (take a stroll through Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and wonderful sources of genealogical information, funerary art, and – sometimes – humorous epitaphs (“See how God works his wonders now and then, – here lies a lawyer and an honest man”[2]). I know people who brake for old cemeteries, carry stone-rubbing materials in the back seat of the car, have made a career of restoring gravestones, volunteer to photograph stones and locations to post online, and have their ancestral cemeteries’ GPS coordinates locked in.

While I’m not inclined to picnic there, I crawl around old cemeteries whether they belong to my ancestors or someone else’s, looking for the oldest dates, what death symbols were carved into the stone, or for the occasional stone lamb over a child’s grave. When I find something really intriguing, I have to go home and research the name to understand who that person was in life to warrant such a different or interesting stone. Incidentally, I have a very patient husband who happens to be blind: brailling an obscure, faded epitaph I can’t read is his way of humoring me.

Gravestone rubbings preserve not only the information on the stone, but any funerary art carved into it. Restoration of the stones, whenever possible, helps to preserve them for years more, delaying the effects of time and weather, and giving us cemetery addicts more to crawl around. I know where several generations of my family are buried (there are a few ancestors whose grave sites are unknown), but that family history doesn’t limit me to appreciating only what is next door.

Investigating cemeteries in other states or countries broadens my understanding of cultural differences, societal variations, and stone art, leading me on a search for those sites that are “lost.” A distant cousin and I are currently searching for two common ancestors’ burial sites in California. Or could they be in Oregon?

Perhaps the only thing better is discovering a long-lost family plot with gravestones intact.  That’s enough reason for a road trip!  And I have a new GPS…

Notes

[1] http://www.momiasdeguanajuato.gob.mx/english/index.html.

[2] Usually noted as being at Gunwallon, near Helston, in Cornwall.

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

3 thoughts on “Earthly remains

  1. Hi Jan, I especially enjoy the dire warnings my ancestors left behind in terms of their epitaphs ….” As you are now so once was I….” They are so wonderfully candid. I only hope I can be the same someday. 😉 – Let me know if I can help with that site you are looking for in California. We might be surprised to find it closer than we think!

  2. I had never thought of photographs of the dead until I came across a photo of my deceased great Aunt, laying in her casket, amongst my mother’s belongings. I then realized that families do take photos of the dead and that’s what I did when my own mother died. My sisters thought it was morbid, but one of my mother’s first cousins was very appreciative when I sent her the photo. We live across the ocean from one another, and my mother and her cousin had only seen one another intermittently over the decades. It was a comfort to her to receive it.

  3. I had grandparents who lost their first child as an infant, back in the early 1900s. The only picture they had of that baby was taken as the baby was in the casket. The sepia toned picture, a very large one in an oval frame, hung in their home for the rest of their lives. I suppose it was a comfort to them to be able to have that image. No matter how hard we try, over time our ability to remember things about loved ones who have died weakens.

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