Good Christian Death: History of Churchyard Cemeteries

Good Christian Death: History of Churchyard Cemeteries

Death is the most natural part of the human experience yet there is nothing innate about how we treat our deceased. Throughout history societies have employed vastly different practices for disposing of and memorializing the dead. To be clear, cemeteries are only one form of ritual commemoration.d3d4238a174333d52a7f9d87a4c04a44--memento-mori-genre.jpg(Example of Romano-Germanic momento mori demonstrating the importance of committing loved ones to the ground. Credit)

There are even subtle differences between words that describe specific burial places such as necropolis and churchyard. Today I’ll focus on the churchyard, which is defined as a consecrated space owned by a church or attached to a church structure. This analysis is specific to Christian churchyards that spread westward from the early Middle Ages.

Gravedigger-Woodcut.jpg(Momento mori woodcut circa 1525. Credit)

Churchyards were a logistical necessity offering a place to partition decaying bodies within limited space. They also served a socializing function since medieval churchyards were gathering places for town functions or ceremonies.1200px-Saints_Innocents_1550_Hoffbauer.jpg(The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery is a defunct churchyard in Paris that was used from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was the oldest and largest churchyard in Paris and was used for mass graves. Credit)

Maintaining strict class distinctions was apparent as affluent citizens were laid to rest inside church catacombs protected from grave robbery while those with less means were consecrated outside. Even the iconic image of a little hillside churchyard was often the geological result of stacking remains on top of each other for years and elevating the land.

tmpnull.jpg(Unknown churchyard. Credit)

With all their idyllic imagery and quaintness, churchyards also share pretty barbaric roots. During Christianity’s rapid expansion in attempt to stamp out detractors, missionaries of the church were instructed to take over pagan burial grounds. This served not only to destroy so-called sacrilegious pagan relics but also allowed the Christian faith to maintain dominance by appropriating the sacredness of the space. It wasn’t enough for early Christians to control the living, they also required eliminating any memory of the polytheistic dead. Even the Vatican was built on top of 22 pagan tombs which are still secured in grottoes under St. Peter’s basilica7954354328_752c41598b_b.jpg(One of the world’s oldest surviving pagan cemeteries in Turkmenistan. Credit)

Churchyards are among my favorite burial sites despite their complicated past. Largely because they remain unchanged for hundreds of years churchyards hold generations of family members and relate a powerful narrative of belonging. I visited a couple small rural churchyards on a recent camping trip and was overwhelmed by the sense of community and care.IMG_4139.jpg(It was touching to see how cared for headstones were. This was obviously cleaned with a power sanding tool. Copyright Alysen Wade.)

The first church we stopped at was Jonah’s Run Baptist in Wilmington, OH. According to their website, Jonah’s Run was founded by Daniel Collett and a few others in 1839 who purchased 4+ acres to build a church and cemetery. The site was purchased from Levi Lukens, a Quaker who arrived from Virginia in 1802. The cemetery was nearly full before 1870. Not many are interred past the late 1800s save a few recent graves that were added as of the early 2000s.  IMG_4134.jpg(During a time when the average age of death was 30 this woman lived to be 90 in 1895. Copyright Alysen Wade.)

The second church we stopped at was Sharon United Methodist also in Wilmington, OH. Unfortunately, the church does not keep historical records that I could find. Like Jonah’s Run most of those laid to rest dated from late 1800s to early 1900s. We could not locate any recent graves. Aside from the beautifully ornate and handcrafted stones another remarkable characteristic was the softness of the ground. At no other cemetery have I felt so nervous walking around. It might have been due to recent rainfall but the earth had an unusually sodden feel that made me slightly worried about stepping too near the headstones.IMG_4137.jpg(Ann was laid to rest in 1843 and I’d like to know if these are her original boots or a family heirloom. I also love that death dates were recorded based on how many years, months, and days you lived. Copyright Alysen Wade.)

This couple died only 13 days apart in 1882:IMG_4136.jpg(Copyright Alysen Wade)

The ornate hand detailing was some of the best I’ve seen:IMG_4135.jpg(Copyright Alysen Wade)

Visiting these two churchyards really solidified for me that cemeteries are hyperlocal, intensely personal spaces. If you’re ever traveling in a remote location and spot a churchyard cemetery I urge you to explore. Special thanks to my friend, Ariel who didn’t mind veering off the beaten path!

Share What You Know! Call for Cemetery Stories

I’m usually the weird girl talking about cemeteries because I find myself endlessly fascinated by what other people know.  Everyone seems to have a ghost story or some kind of interest in the dead. Let me know if you have something to tell! It doesn’t have to be lengthy. 300-500 words and few pictures will do. Or if you’ve heard about something to explore we could collaborate on a research project. I’m down for anything. Just don’t plagiarize and if it’s a narrative it must have happened to you. Tell us about your childhood haunted house or the cemetery near where you live. I hope to hear from you!

Submit to*IMG_4060.jpg(Even Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, liked cemeteries. I discovered this photo taken by Lewis in a book published posthumously about his forgotten photography career. Circa 1850 Oxford, UK. Available here.)

*Editing rights reserved.

Belmont Casket Co. & The Penitentiary Fire of 1930: Columbus Walking Tour

Belmont Casket Co. & The Penitentiary Fire of 1930: Columbus Walking Tour


I was walking near my apartment when I looked up to see the most remarkable old rooftop advertisement off Neil Ave. I did some quick Googling and turns out Columbus, OH was home to an empire of the death industry, Belmont Casket Co. They were incorporated in 1916 but the building was constructed in 1885. Apparently, they held a patent for the Cadillac of caskets called “The Masterpiece,” a handcrafted coffin with indestructible steel lid in which Marilyn Monroe was purportedly buried. Woman was clearly concerned about body snatchers.


This real estate company now owns the building. It’s probably fun living/working inside an old casket factory. Their slogan really gets me.

Screenshot 2017-09-19 19.26.42.png(Credit)

Also, this place has the craziest connection to the catastrophic Columbus penitentiary fire of

320 inmates were left to burn alive in their cells after a fire started on the roof. It’s one of America’s deadliest fires next to the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy. Because of proximity to the prison (not to mention available product), the casket factory became a temporary holding facility for hundreds of bodies when the morgue got too full.


The above photo shows those departed lined up in Belmont brand caskets at the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where a mass funeral ceremony was held for the unclaimed. Not much information remains about the factory or how much money they likely made from the blaze, but the advertisement alone is my favorite thing I’ve discovered in the neighborhood so far. P.S. Hope your Autumn is off to a great start!

IMG_3995.JPG(Credit: Alysen Wade)

The Ridges: Asylum Cemetery of Athens, OH

The Ridges: Asylum Cemetery of Athens, OH

There are many factors that make an old insane asylum a hotbed for urban legends. At the height of Victorian-era mental health reform Ohio constructed a record-breaking seven psychiatric facilities including the sprawling 700,000 square foot campus nestled among rolling hills of Athens County known as the Ridges. I made the quick trip from Columbus to visit the site’s three cemeteries and was surprised to find much more than remnants of squalid horror.

151102_HIST_asylum.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge.jpg(Photo Credit: Ohio University Media Library)

Historic asylums like the Ridges bear an unfortunate record of inhumanity. Though the institution was built as a monument to the morality movement aimed at providing empathic patient care, it inevitably collided with the realities of overcrowding, understaffing, and containment of individuals who suffered from a vast array of misunderstood illnesses.

Views_In_and_About_Athens_Asylum_for_the_Insane_page_21_1893.jpg(Photo Credit: Ohio University Media Library)

Patients could be committed for anything from epilepsy and masturbation to vagrancy. Many were dumped off by destitute family members who were unable or unwilling to provide in-home care. The Ridges sometimes served as an arm of the penal system housing criminals who ranged from labor-union organizers to dangerous felons such as the infamous Ohio State serial rapist with multiple personality disorder who became the subject of a novel by Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon.


(Keyes’ book is also the inspiration for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 movie, Split)

The Ridges, or Athens Lunatic Asylum as it was first known, was a boon for the local economy. Offering free clinical services and housing for thousands of patients in an immaculately constructed building was no cheap task. The hospital generated revenue by producing milk, eggs, linens, and other necessities for the nearby town. Some of the more gruesome details of asylum life have been discredited as hearsay, but reports indicate that the workforce was exploited for free labor by over-medicating patients and performing controversial procedures like lobotomy.

ajaxhelper.jpg(Photo Credit: Ohio University Media Library)

Egregious evidence of patient neglect can be found on an upper floor of the women’s ward. There the remarkably detailed silhouette of Margaret Schilling is forever set into the stone floor. Schilling was a patient in 1978 who went missing in early December. Staff launched a search party that retired after five days. Some 40 days after her disappearance a janitor discovered Schilling’s badly decomposed naked body face up with her entire wardrobe folded neatly beside her. Bodily fluids leeched so deeply into the concrete that no amount of scrubbing or surfactant can remove the stain.

schilling-1024x988.jpg(Photo Credit: Unknown)

Signs that the hospital was not the rehabilitative utopia it set out to be can also be found among its three cemeteries. Original building plans account for the first cemetery with the later two being hastily added after the hospital ran out of space to bury the dead. Information or locations of the first 62 patients buried at the Ridges has yet to be discovered and the remains of another 1,930 laid to rest are marked only by their patient number.

IMG_3852.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

IMG_3851.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

Despite ostensible misery that accompanied institution life, the city of Athens has developed a palpable bond with and solemn remembrance for those who died at the asylum. NAMI’s local chapter restored military honors to those veterans interred at the Ridges and many surviving family members have gone through the process of gaining special permission required by the state of Ohio to identify loved ones. Some of the hospital-issued markers have been replaced with proper memorials and recently placed flowers dot the hillside graveyards that look like rows of broken teeth.

IMG_3854.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

Today you can visit the Ridges, which is in use by Ohio University. The main ward has been turned into an art gallery although most of the massive structure is sealed off. The university offers rare tours during autumn months and you can take scheduled or self-guided walks through the cemetery grounds. It’s humbling to see a failed social experiment that began with such lofty and well meaning goals and it’s no wonder that the Athens Lunatic Asylum, a.k.a the Ridges is such an important part of regional lore.

IMG_3853.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

Reference: Ziff, Katherine. Asylum on the Hill. Ohio University Press, 2012.


Dogs in Heaven: Pet Cemeteries, History and Culture

Dogs in Heaven: Pet Cemeteries, History and Culture

Stephen King said of his 1983 book-turned-movie blockbuster, Pet Sematary, that it was his darkest work. Few of his other iconic tales so closely mirrored events from the author’s real life. The novel derives its plot from King’s own experience living near a remote pet cemetery in Orrington, Maine. On a Thanksgiving Day in the late 1970s, King laid to rest his grief-stricken daughter’s cat “Smucky” after it was hit outside of the family’s home. Drawn to the quiet retreat, King often sat in a lawn chair among the makeshift headstones penning the macabre story of pets and people who would become demonically reanimated after burial there.  Pet Sematary.jpg(

To be honest, I didn’t know pet cemeteries actually existed outside of the film until a recent acquaintance mentioned the local abandoned gem near the Columbus regional airport. Turns out, pet cemeteries are fairly common and have been throughout antiquity. Smithsonian Magazine reported the discovery of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian pet cemetery containing roughly 100 carefully preserved cats, dogs, and a few monkeys in 2016. Many were unearthed wearing elaborate jewelry and placed inside decorative urnsMummy.jpg(The History Blog)

Several zoological gravesites have also been excavated in recent past, such as the Ashkelon Dog Cemetery in Israel where thousands of ancient canine remains were discovered in a series of sprawling terraces. Researchers hypothesize that because dogs were revered in many ancient Persian traditions, the elaborate burials within a sacred part of the city could indicate that the animals were temple dogs for a widely practiced puppy-loving cult. Iconography depicting a Zoroastrian deity found near the remains suggests that the dogs of Ashkelon served as religious healers of the sick and injured by licking wounds for a fee. This is not altogether astonishing considering that canine saliva has been shown to contain mild antibacterial properties.

IMG_3541.JPG(Photo: Alysen Wade)

In the modern world there are still a number of operating pet interment facilities, including the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques (Cemetery of Dogs and Other Domestic Animals) founded 1899 in a Parisian suburb. It contains remains of over 40,000 companions including the internationally famous, Rin Tin Tin. The American counterpart is the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York built in 1896 containing over 70,000 interments. The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories estimates there are over 600 currently in-use pet cemeteries throughout the United States. The total number of pet cemeteries is likely to be much higher considering private burial grounds and sites that are no longer interring animals, like the Columbus Pet Cemetery.our pet.jpg(by Alysen Wade)

The Columbus Pet Cemetery (officially registered as Brown Pet Cemetery) is a bit of a hike but well worth the drive. A Google search will provide you with an address that is actually a warehouse. Park instead at the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant and walk to the far left of the property facing away from the building to the woods across the highway. In a clearing that extends all the way down to the riverfront you will find wistfully overgrown miniature headstones and endearing epitaphs replete with more cute cat pictures than you can handle.IMG_3528.JPGestablishing.jpg(by Alysen Wade)

The headstones range from early 1920s through 1990s, the oldest located at the back of the property. According to county records, local veterinarian, Walter A. Brown, founded the not-for-profit cemetery on June 9, 1941. The Capital Area Human Society received funds for its upkeep from a late son of Dr. Brown (also a vet) until he passed away. The Society now attempts to care for the land with limited resources but their primary focus is to provide welfare for non-deceased animals. This has left the grounds in a significant state of disrepair. As reported by the Columbus Dispatch, the cemetery stopped operating around 1997. At this time I am unsure of who legally owns the land.IMG_3540.JPG(by Alysen Wade)

Places like the Columbus Pet Cemetery are lingering facets of history that have contributed to the impressive growth of a commercial pet funeral economy. While such memorial parks saw their peak and decline during the 1970s and 80s, many other thriving sites continue to inter the furry departed. Animal lovers from all over the world now drive a $100 million industry. It’s easy to brush pet cemeteries off as a frivolity for the upper class—and make no mistake the $1,000+ price tag is not something that everyone can afford (the most expensive pet funeral on record cost $733,000 for a Tibetan mastiff).michigan-gladstone-pet-casket-factory-tour.jpg(

Modern pet cemeteries also serve as important sites to negotiate social acceptability and practices surrounding grief and death. The very invention of pet cemeteries was due largely to strict legislation that does not allow humans and domesticated animals to share interred space. Many have challenged and overturned these laws recently. Some adamant pet lovers forgo the regulations entirely and instead commit their own remains to pet cemetery plots with their beloved animals.Only little boy.jpg(By Charlie Wilmoth)

Most importantly, pet cemeteries reveal different sides of the human psyche. In them we see our great depth of humanity and care for small fragile things. Yet we also see how this kindness seems to extend only to certain species and groups. Pet cemeteries allow us to examine our sense of mortality and cope with the complexities of death. We have simply replicated human cities of the dead by scaling down the headstones and imbuing the animals beneath with our own traits, personalities, surnames, and religious affiliations (by the looks of it, all dogs go to Christian heaven). While some may not agree with how a person chooses to confront the challenges of losing a pet, I think we should appreciate why pet cemeteries continue to exist.IMG_3533.JPG(by Alysen Wade)

Shop Update: Now Open!

I finally added an item to my shop! Right now it’s just the one item, but my NY resolution is to get serious about setting up more craft shows. I currently have a small army of cemetery terrariums, but I worry about their ability to withstand shipment. For now, enjoy these little dudes by visiting the shop. Thanks for supporting my weirdo hobbies!


What a Way to Go: Endocannibalism

Let this post officially serve as the start of a new gross-out series. While it is true that my affinity for the macabre is slightly above average, I think it is important to observe the darkest parts of human death in earnest. I landed on this particular topic after reading the popular non-fiction, Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. The book offers a wealth of fascinating information, so I don’t know what it says about me that this was a big sticking point. I’d apologize for my garish affinities, but then here you are reading this as well. Quick caveat, I have no interest in “otherizing” non-Western/Eurocentric ways of death. Instead, I hope to gain a better understanding for the wide range of funerary practices that make up the whole picture of how different cultures deal with death.

Eats04_R1.jpg (Photo: “Cannibalism in Early Jamestown” by Theodore de Bry, 1592)

Endocannibalism is an anthropological term used to describe the ritualistic practice of consuming one’s dead. This tradition is usually passed down among generations and can be divided into two forms: endo- and exo-. The difference being if the person cannibalized was from within the social circle (i.e. family member, tribesperson) or from an outside group (exocannibalism=enemy, rival). 

The important thing to remember is that among traditional acts of endocannibalism, there is an expression of veneration or consumption for the purpose of recuperating some intangible force, like a person’s wisdom or soul. The most recent and well-documented account of this practice comes from the Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea. 

Here, endocannibalism was a solemn gesture that involved all members of the deceased’s family. There were prescriptive practices as to who could feast upon what portions of the body based largely on gender roles (men would eat the sinewy parts while women and children consumed the brain). Also important was the aspect of grief. Consuming a loved one served the purpose of alleviating memories, transforming the body, or extenuating notions of life-after-death. 

Granted the practice isn’t so tender when considering the counterpart to the equation, which is eating someone out of competition or hate. However, factor in the context of survivalism in regions where food sources are far more scarce and you get a better picture of how lines of ethics are not always cut and dry (see the Donner Party). 

The problem in my view is not that this practice existed (and still does) but more that it stands out as a means of social control whether explicit or implicit: Explicitly in the sense that humans have used myths or actual practices of cannibalism to inspire fear in their rivals (the Aztecs as one example); implicitly in that such behavior has often been used as a justification for labeling certain groups as barbaric or uncivilized. 

The field of anthropology has made significant contributions in identifying various forms and causes for cannibalism. There is argument among scholars about the origins and necessities of humans eating other humans including survivalism, idealism, and religious affiliation. Besides, the Christian practice of Communion isn’t terribly far off. 

We take for granted that narratives of barbarism are true and not fabricated by those in power as a way of demonizing groups that have been subjected to Western expansion. In fact, everyone’s favorite imperialist colonizer, Christopher Columbus, first used the term in his diaries from the 15th century after his crew was told to avoid certain areas of the New World because they were inhabited by “savage flesh eaters” that were never proven to exist. 

It’s interesting to identify how the term has become so taboo. Indeed, there are lots of good reasons not to eat your neighbor or your aunt (have fun reading about a disease called kuru and never sleeping again). In any case, this cultural phenomenon is one that contains all the complexities of modernity, colonization, global perspective taking, and religious awareness. 

Thanks for reading this much text, feel free to go search all the graphic pics. I felt like I had to stop myself somewhere.