The Cemetery Comes to Life

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American Fork Cemetery with mountains

American Fork Cemetery. Photo by David Rodeback.

My small city, American Fork, Utah, has almost enough parks, and some of them have good jogging paths. But walkers’ and joggers’ favorite venue is, of all places, the local cemetery. I live nearby, and I see them there almost anytime between dawn and dusk, except during rare bouts of nasty weather. The cemetery itself is picturesque, and its lake and mountain views are captivating, especially — for me — in the evening.

It doesn’t seem odd or inappropriate to me that a cemetery should be a popular recreation spot, at least in the sense I’ve described. But I confess I first thought it strange that a city would have an annual “History and Heritage Pageant” among the gravestones. I’ve long since changed my mind; now it seems quite appropriate.

Mark Steele as sea captain

Mark Steele plays a sea captain in the 2011 pageant. Bret Dalton photo, used by permission.

For three evenings every summer, near the end of July, our local cemetery comes alive. Hundreds of people gather to enjoy food, including a very popular 25-cent ice cream cone; various crafts; carriage rides (see the horse-drawn carriage just entering the photo above); and live music. Top billing goes to my favorite part of the event, half a dozen amateur theatrical presentations about the lives of people buried in the cemetery. These vary in length from 10 to 25 minutes, and each of them runs several times during the evening. There’s more to see and do than a single evening permits, but the modestly-priced tickets are good for all three evenings.

This year, my own participation began months before. Local resident Cindy Holindrake, who has run the pageant for several years, came to me and asked if I’d like to write another script — my fourth in the last six years, but who’s counting? She gave me a stack of personal histories and other materials she had found about three people who are interred in the cemetery. This might have been enough material for two or three scripts, but she was worried that one of the tales might be too dark, including, as it does, the story of an English sailor nearly being eaten by his shipwrecked comrades.

Writing for the stage is always challenging, I suppose. But when the stage is the cemetery lawn, the actors (almost always) amateurs, the costumes simple, and the props minimal, it’s more so. Add to that the need for historical accuracy and the common challenge of portraying numerous significant events of a lifetime in the space of 10-25 minutes, and the playwright’s role seems almost daring, or possibly foolhardy. Writing for this pageant, I don’t have to face my subjects in person, but I’ll almost always meet several of their descendants, who either live nearby or come from afar to see the production. I want them to feel that I’ve portrayed their ancestor accurately and sympathetically, and — perhaps more importantly — that I haven’t abused a good life by using it to bore audiences.

The first time I participated in one of these dramas, I played a small role in the most lavish such production I’ve seen. A friend and neighbor who has studied the Mormon pioneers extensively wrote the script and assembled a cast of about 20, including some children. He even recruited a team of horses, a driver, and a covered wagon. The vignette was about two famous handcart companies who started late and met disaster in Wyoming, when winter came early. I was cast as Levi Savage, one of the pioneers and a personal hero of mine.

My own first script was about another pioneer, Thomas Featherstone. The production had a cast of about 10 — including a few to play the hero at different ages — and some live music. The narrative continuity came from an older Thomas reading from his journal to connect scenes and place them in context.

David Rodeback and Brent Miller

Yours truly (left) and Brent Miller, 2011. Bret Dalton photo, used by permission.

The next year, a friend and I took an idea from a past pageant and wrote a new script, which became (we were told) the first outright comedy ever presented in the pageant. It’s about a Mormon polygamist fleeing a US Deputy Marshal. The polygamist dons a dress and bonnet and hides himself in a church meeting (the audience), just as the marshal arrives. We told people that our production was “twelve minutes of silliness sprinkled with a few bits of history,” but the situation was authentic enough, and one of the historical figures is buried in the cemetery. That first year, I wore the badge, and my friend wore the dress. Three years later (last year) they asked us to do it again, and we decided it would be fair to switch roles.

Apparently, in a dress I am not only hideous, but also memorable. I often volunteer as an usher and a ticket-taker at concerts of a local symphony orchestra, two towns to the north of my own. I wear a suit and tie for that gig, not a dress, but people I don’t know still say, as they hand me their tickets, “We know you. We saw you wearing a dress at the cemetery!”

Two years ago, I wrote a script about Hap Holmstead, a prominent local athletic coach who lived when some popular American sports were played locally in a cow pasture — making good footwork even more important, I suppose.

Tammie Foote, John Heeder, David Rodeback

Tammie Foote, John Heeder (center), and the author in "Swapping Stories on the Porch" (2012). Bret Dalton photo, used by permission.

For this year’s new script, I decided to combine those three autobiographies Cindy gave me into a single 25-minute bout of after-dinner storytelling. Two of the three, Jonathan and Mary Steggell, came from England to American Fork, lived rather adventurous lives, and are buried not far from our grassy “stage.” (The first photo in this post is taken from our “stage,” looking toward three American flags which mark the Steggells’ and my own character’s graves.) An old neighbor and a new neighbor played those roles.

I played a Scotsman, John Duncan, with a wooden leg, one blind eye, and a prickly relationship with religious authority. I spent a few weeks listening to Scottish accents, so I could sound almost authentic. After a bit of experimenting in rehearsals, I also figured out how to hit myself over the head with my cane loudly enough to tease the audience, but without giving myself a headache. This violence wasn’t completely gratuitous; I was telling a story about some Indian trouble in Wyoming, which involved my character being hit over the head with a rifle barrel.

We performed five times each evening, for audiences ranging in size from half a dozen to forty. (Two dozen filled our folding chairs; then it was Standing Room Only.) We met descendants of John Duncan and the Steggells. They were complimentary and full of questions. We told them what we knew from the histories.

John Dalton gravestone

John Duncan's gravestone in American Fork. Photo by David Rodeback.

Only now do I realize that I missed an opportunity. I learned, as I was just beginning to write, that an elderly gentleman who lives about two stones’ throw from me is a direct descendant of the Steggells. He sat me down one morning and showed me two volumes of their history and journals, which he had edited years before and published for the family. (This was after another family member had learned to read the old version of shorthand in which the original text was written!) He doesn’t get out much, so we should have taken our production on the road, to his living room. It’s too late now, but I suppose I can at least take him the script.

Things slow down after sunset. The last theatrical performances end, and we load the props into a cast member’s van. It’s not a big job: three rocking chairs, my cane, a small table to hold our pie, some plates and forks, what’s left of the pie, and — until a gust of wind toppled it and broke it — a wooden coat rack. Meanwhile, much of the crowd gathers for live music that is just beginning. I would stop and enjoy it, too, if I hadn’t spent the last two hours on stage. Instead, I take my bow tie, my hat, and my fake Scottish accent and walk off into the sunset. Literally.

Sunset at the American Fork Cemetery

Sunset at the American Fork Cemetery. Photo by David Rodeback.

I have other commitments next year, but I’m already looking forward to reviving “Brother Will and the Deputy Marshal” in 2014. And I don’t care who wears the dress.

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4 Responses to “The Cemetery Comes to Life”

  1. Rose Chandler says:

    I absolutely love this! Imagine when the resurrections starts taking place. And they tell them about these days past. The Bible holds out the hope of a return to earth to live under God’s Kingdom one day. All our sins from before are forgiven because Jesus paid for those. We will have 1,000 yrs to grow to perfection and to grow in knowledge of Jehovah God and his his love and mercy. Thx for sharing! Rose

  2. Dee Winter says:

    Great account of a great event! I always think cemetaries should be places of life to dance with the spirits! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Barbara Johnson says:

    We have a similar program here in Augusta, Ga. but I like your program better. Here actors stand by the tombstone, costumed as the deceased, and tell something of the person’s life. Yours with crafts, carriage rides, and a shared meal sound like a community truly coming together to honor their heritage. I can not believe we never thought of FOOD. So unlike us.

    Much continued success.

  4. Lois D says:

    What a great idea for getting to know your neighbors and their ancestors.

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