“If you look at them [mourning customs, epitaphs, and motifs] with 20th century eyes you will miss [the meaning]. You’ve got to understand what the world was actually like, what it was like living in this area, at that time.” Rebecca Jo Rosen, September 2011
In late September 2011 I was able to sit down with Rebecca Jo Rosen, author of the book Reflections: 19th century gravestones and selected sculptures of Chautauqua County, New York and have a discussion about why she started the project and how it has impacted Chautauqua County. Through this discussion I realized how her passion for 19th century mortuary art and my pursuit of local ghost stories and legends compliment each other.
The idea of Chautauqua Ghosts started in 1996-1997 when I had gone to Guernsey Hollow Cemetery in Cattaraugus County and had a few experiences late one night with a group of friends. What led us there was the lure of spirits that would reveal themselves once we kissed the cross at the back of the cemetery. Daunting as it was I clamoured up the hill past all of the gravestones to the large stone cross that stood sentinel at the back, watching over those that were laid to rest below. I did kiss the cross that night and what followed was an experience that I will remember all my life. That experience led me to pursue the local ghost stories, legends, and experiences of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties. Sure I wanted to experience more hauntings, learn what I could about the paranormal and tell those stories that could put a chill down your spine. However, with that also came the realization that, as personal as the ghost stories and legends were, they were the stories of those that came before us.
About ten years before that, in 1987, work started on a project to preserve and document over 5,000 19th Century gravestones to reveal the rich epitaphs and motifs that were scattered across Chautauqua County cemeteries. The project that began for Rebecca Rosen that day became a passion to preserve the integrity of mortuary art and remembrance of those people that settled and worked this land that we live and walk on everyday. They forged from wild and timbered land the rich communities of Chautauqua County. It is only right that we should continue to remember them through their history and sacrifice through the hard times of creating a life for themselves and families and the long line of descendants to follow.
The stories that I have come across since I started www.chautauquaghosts.com are sometimes steeped in the paranormal but others are just a bit strange or interesting, experiences of the past that have now become the very threads of our community’s tapestry. The true story of our ancestors lives can be told orally, written in a book, and on a gravestone. That is the true gift of what Reflections brings to our 21st century lives, it is a bridge to the past. The book allows us to begin to tether ourselves to an earlier time and an earlier way of life, “I feel 19th century gravestones and motifs reflect, represent the social, political, and religious aspects of that time period. Hence the name Reflections, it is a direct reflection of what the world was like” (Rosen, 2011).
We currently have shifted away from the idea that a gravestone is a marker for the deceased and his/her place in the world. A modern gravestone merely marks a spot in the earth, a 19th century gravestone marks a spot in history by telling a story of the deceased. Rebecca told me how she used to walk through the cemetery with her family when she was a child and her father would talk about what ancestors were buried there and he would tell stories about them, from time to time even producing a photo so he could put a face with the name and the story. That was the function of 19th century gravestones, “a cemetery to the early settlers was their book of history, it was a teaching tool. So after church they would walk through the cemetery to learn” (Rosen, 2011). She goes on to state that “now it has been made generic, they [gravestones] have lost the meaning and [people] do not have the need to share what their life was like.
The problem now is that we look at the stones with 21st century eyes and interpret them with 21st century ideals. We do not understand what the stones are trying to communicate to us because there is no frame of reference. Just like a dying language people start to lose the ability to read the stone’s imagery and words. Reflections details what gravestones are trying to tell us. What does the shape of the stone imply? Pointing hands, winged cherubs, flowers, portraits and faces are all there but what does any of it mean? For us to understand we need to accept that we have lost the ability to interpret these symbols. The ability that children in the 19th century were fully capable and expected to be able to do. We need to slow down and take the time to walk through the rows of gravestones and look hard at what we see. Start to appreciate that they are not just stones marking a spot in the earth but monuments to the lives of the people that lived here before us.
Rebecca and my discussion continued on but the one most important question was how Reflections, since published, has impacted Chautauqua County as a whole. Rebecca’s passion for the project has created a larger recognition that “a gravestone is the last living memorial that a family gives to their loved one. It is meant to mark that person’s grave, it is meant to weather away; it is not a so called artifact; it has a stronger meaning” (Rosen, 2011). In 1992 with the help of some other passionate historians and politicians she was able to get the law changed for the removal of grave markers from cemeteries. Punishment for the removal of a grave marker went from a misdemeanor to a felony curbing the removal of these markers from where they were meant to be. This alone has allowed the gravestones and markers to survive for generations to come making an indelible mark on our local tapestry.
Over the years that I have investigated the paranormal stories and the legends of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties I have walked through many cemeteries. The peaceful feeling of wandering through the stones, listening to birds in the trees, and the quiet solitude that surrounds you, you can know that the dead do speak. Not always as a whispering in the wind that gently caresses your ear but through the stones that mark their final resting place. Take the time to learn what the dearly departed are trying to say over the vast expanse of years and preserve the memories of those that came before us. Reflections is a guide book to understanding the world as it was and understanding the lives of our ancestors through the monuments they left behind. The next time you drive by a cemetery slow down and pull to the side of the road, get out, and take a walk through the rows to appreciate what is around you; simply put “[cemeteries] are and outdoor museum, and outdoor library” (Rosen, 2011).