Posts Tagged ‘cemetery’

Sometimes You Succeed (or Finding My Brothers’ Graves)

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

My four siblings and I were born in Boulder, Colorado, back in a previous century. My older brother, Alan, died the day he was born. Do the math; I never met him. One of my younger brothers, Douglas, died three days after he was born, but I never met him, either. My older sister recalls seeing him and attending the small funeral. One of the ironies of life in the modern world is that both died of complications of an Rh-factor problem. Less than two decades later, this problem was quite manageable and reliably survivable.

My only related memory is of visiting my brothers’ graves at a small cemetery near the Boulder airport. I remember cards in plastic, marking the graves until gravestones would be installed.

We left Boulder for southeastern Idaho when I was ten. I was the first to return, and that was more that 30 years later. My parents’ recollection was that they never bought gravestones. There has been talk for some years of needing to go back to Boulder and take care of that.

My family and I were vacationing in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas several years ago, and we decided to spend a day in Boulder. I took them on a short tour of landmarks, including the home where I spent my first decade; the nearby park through which I was not supposed to walk on my way home from school, but often did; and my first elementary school, now renamed. I took some photos, then managed to lose the memory card containing them before returning home.

We went to one — or maybe it’s a hundred — of Boulder’s main attractions, the Pearl Street pedestrian mall. I left the family there and went to find the nearest cemetery to the airport, according to an online map. It was as I remembered it, including the airport’s landing pattern. My mission was to get information which would help us finally to place gravestones at my brothers’ graves and, if possible, to find the graves themselves.

The Cemetery Comes to Life

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

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.

Cooper’s grave a reminder of the special nature of burial sites

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

I work with genealogy data every day at, but lately, as a genealogist, I’ve wanted to get out of the office and help record the important facts left behind on tombstones. One of the many content partners whose data we index at WorldVitalRecords is Find A Grave, so that’s where I started.

I signed up as a contributor at Find A Grave and found some photo requests for a local cemetery I had never visited before. It was nice to discover that this cemetery was only a mile or so away from my office in Provo.

During lunch I jumped in my car to locate the cemetery and take a look around. I planned on going back again later with the printed photo requests to gather the requested information.

In no time I was winding up the side of a mountain on an old paved road, just high enough to be above most of the homes. East Lawn Memorial Hills Cemetery was quite the surprise. I thought back to the recent burial of my grandfather in Lindon and wished this picturesque location could have been chosen for his final resting place. I meandered through the cemetery roads a bit and then pulled over and began to walk the rows of in-the-ground, flat tombstones.

The cemetery is nestled in the foothills above Provo, near the mouth of Provo Canyon. Mountains soar behind it. Paths wind among the trees, hills, flower gardens and graves. Utah Lake dominates the

Halloween Memorial

Halloween Memorial

vista to the west, with more mountains beyond it. Truly this is the most beautiful of all burial grounds I’d ever imagined.

There are more gravesites here than first appear; the flat headstones hide in the grass until you come close to them. I was alone with the residents, at peace, a few hundred feet above the hustle and bustle of the suburbs.
I ventured toward a couple of young trees, which appeared to have a sign strung between them.

I could see that great care had been taken in stringing the sign, and the tree trunks had become columns of pictures, tied with orange ribbons and bows. There were pumpkins at the bases of the trees.

The pictures were of all of the same family, dressed for several Halloweens. The little boy in the pictures was Cooper; his name was spelled out on the sign. I had not yet seen his grave.

Cooper's Headstone

Cooper's Headstone

A few steps from the trees, I found it. Little Cooper’s windswept hair, mischievous eyes and big, happy smile were now embossed forever in bronze, with a lake in the background. Cooper’s parents have since told me that the lake is Navajo Lake, near Cedar City, where Cooper loved to wade and skip rocks. It was the most beautiful tombstone I had ever seen.

Suddenly, the graves all around me felt alive. A gravestone is not just a rock in the ground with some lettering on it. It marks the final resting place of someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, parent or neighbor or friend. To someone like me, who is involved in the never-ending work of family history, perhaps this should be obvious. But on that day in that place, I felt it as I hadn’t felt it before. A grave is a place to keep memories alive.

I went back a couple of days later with Cooper’s name on my list of photo requests, because the Internet is a place to keep memories alive, too. I met a brother and sister who are also Find A Grave contributors. They were busy walking the rows, looking for graves of which photos had been requested. They hadn’t seen Cooper’s grave yet. I told them they were in for a special moment. I imagine them lingering, as I had, amid the Halloween decorations, at the beautiful resting place of a beloved little boy.

Take the time to work on your genealogy. Learn more of the stories of your own ancestors, and sooner or later you’ll find some special places like Cooper’s.

Discover Your Family Stories

Note: Cooper’s family has a blog where you can learn more about Cooper, the annual run established in his memory and the family’s memories of their son and brother.

View From the cemetery

View from the cemetery

Cooper's grave and Halloween Memorial

Cooper's grave and Halloween Memorial